Suspect charged in deadly Australian fire

Authorities charged a man Friday with lighting one of the wildfires that killed a total of more than 180 people in Australia

Suspect charged in deadly Australian fire

Authorities charged a man Friday with lighting one of the wildfires that killed a total of more than 180 people in Australia, and whisked him into protective custody to guard him from public fury.

Police said the suspect was charged with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7, leaving 7,000 people homeless and razing entire towns.

The disaster's official death toll is 181, but efforts to find and identify victims were continuing and officials expected the final tally to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes and 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of forests and farms were burned.

The suspect's identity was being kept secret for his own safety, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney told a news conference. He was brought to the state capital of Melbourne from Morwell, 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the east and near the the town of Churchill.

''He has been moved from that area and moved to the Melbourne metropolitan area for security reasons,'' Moloney said.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported from Morwell that the suspect was formally charged in the town's magistrate's court, but that he did not appear. He was ordered to be held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, the broadcaster said.

Police said in a statement that Magistrate Clive Allsop banned publication of any details or photographs of the man that could identify him. Another court hearing was scheduled for Monday.

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge.

Police have said they believe foul play was the cause of at least two of the deadly blazes, including the Churchill fire. Those suspicions disgusted the country and prompted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to describe the fires as possible mass murder.

Agencies

Last Mod: 13 Şubat 2009, 10:58
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