Middle East

Israel: Haifa forest fire 'under control'

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Media captionBrigadier General Eden Atias said a huge 747 firefighting plane was used in the operation

The immense forest fire in northern Israel is now largely under control, Israeli officials have said.

Fire department spokesman Boaz Rakia said only small fires remained in the Carmel forest, north of the city of Haifa, and they were fully contained.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel did not need more international help to tackle the blaze, which has been burning since Thursday.

At least 41 people have died in what is thought to be Israel's largest fire.

Thirty-six were trainee prison officers who were going to evacuate 500 inmates to safety from Damon Prison, on the edge of the forest.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Lebanon, firefighters are battling a separate forest fire, which has devastated thousands of acres of land in the hills near Fatri, 45km (30 miles) north of the capital Beirut.

Water-bombing

At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, Mr Rakia said the fire department had declared that the fire was under control, about 77 hours after it broke out near the Druze village of Usfiya.

He said there were still small fires in some places, but that firefighters had concluded that they were completely contained. They will continue operations in the coming days to prevent further outbreaks.

Mr Rakia said that most of the thousands of Israelis evacuated from their homes would now be allowed to return.

"From our point of view, the danger has passed for all the places that were evacuated," he told reporters.

Shortly before the announcement, Mr Netanyahu said he had withdrawn a request for additional firefighting planes from foreign states, on the advice of the air force and fire chiefs.

Image caption Firefighters have concluded that the remaining fires are completely contained

The prime minister had become the focus for criticism within Israel after he requested international assistance as the blaze took hold. A total of 24 aircraft were flown in from abroad to help, while the Palestinian Authority dispatched three fire engines and crew.

The world's largest firefighting aircraft, the American Boeing 747 Evergreen SuperTanker, took to the skies earlier on Sunday in a last push to extinguish any major fires still burning in Carmel.

Mr Netanyahu praised the authorities' swift response to the biggest civilian disaster in Israel's history.

"In other countries, big fires took longer. We have been asked, 'How can you put out a big fire in less than three days, while it takes other countries three weeks?' My response was: 'We have no other country, and it's a very small country.'"

'Shabbat desecrated'

Officials say the fire has destroyed more than 12,300 acres (5,000 hectares) of land, more than 5m trees and 74 buildings.

Image caption Israeli police have been holding funerals for colleagues killed by the huge fire

Close to 17,000 people were evacuated from homes, hospitals and prisons.

Mr Netanyahu has pledged to rebuild the damaged area quickly, and has approved an initial $16.5m special emergency aid package.

A court in Haifa has ordered two teenage brothers suspected of starting the blaze through negligence to be held until Wednesday. Both have been accused of failing to extinguish a fire they lit in their village.

However, the boys' father has reportedly denied they were involved.

The spiritual leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish party, Shas, has meanwhile suggested that the forest fire was punishment from God for religious offences committed by those living in the Carmel region.

During his weekly sermon, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef read a section from the Babylonian Talmud, which states that "fire only exists in a place where Shabbat [the Sabbath] is desecrated", according to the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"We must repent, keep Shabbat appropriately," he said.

The remarks were later defended by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of Shas, who said that the rabbi was "in tears" and had spoken "with pain" about the tragedy in Carmel.

Many in Israel have in recent days demanded Mr Yishai resign for inadequate preparation of the national firefighting system.

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