Latin America & Caribbean

Israeli tourist family defends Chile fire suspect

Fire burns in the Torres del Paine National Park
Image caption High winds spread the flames rapidly through the Torres del Paine national park

The family of an Israeli tourist accused of starting a massive forest fire in a Chilean national park say the authorities are making him a scapegoat.

Twenty-three-year-old Rotem Singer's relatives in Israel say he could not have caused the blaze.

A 110 sq km (27,000 acre) expanse of pristine forest has already burned in the Torres del Paine national park in southern Chile.

Hundreds of firefighters are still tackling the blaze.

Mr Singer was arrested on Saturday on suspicion of causing the fire through negligence, by failing to properly extinguish a toilet roll he had been burning.

Chilean prosecutor Juan Melendez said the Israeli had acknowledged his role in allowing the fire to start.

However, Mr Singer's family say he is innocent.

"He could not have caused this disaster. He was a kilometre away from the fire when his friends woke him up," Hezi Singer, the tourist's father, told Israeli radio.

"The Chilean authorities are looking for a scapegoat," he added.

Rotem Singer's grandfather, Gilad Harel, told an Israeli newspaper that the allegations were bizarre.

He is "a responsible person, who served in a combat unit in the army", Mr Harel told Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

'Extreme scenario'

Torres del Paine in Patagonia is one of Chile's most popular national parks, visited by more than 100,000 people a year.

Four hundred tourists were evacuated from the area on Thursday as firefighters were unable to control the blaze.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said it could take weeks to bring the fire under control.

The head of Chile's national emergency service, Vicente Nunez, called the situation "an extreme scenario, mainly due to topography, strong winds and highly combustible vegetation".

In 2005, a campfire started by a backpacker destroyed 160 sq km (40,000 acres) of the nature preserve.

President Pinera said the ministers of agriculture and the environment would travel to Patagonia to personally oversee the firefighting efforts.

An environmental group, Ecological Action, had earlier criticised the government for what it said was a slow response to the fire.

The group's co-ordinator, Luis Mariano Rendon, said it was a "national shame" that on Thursday only 25 Chilean soldiers were fighting the fires, when neighbouring Argentina had sent 23.

The fire started on Tuesday and spread quickly, fanned by high winds and fuelled by dry vegetation.

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