International Law

Nearly 200 Dead in Australian Fires; Top Official Cites 'Mass Murder'

As residents fled for their lives and Australian firefighters battled more than 30 blazes in Victoria in the country’s worst-ever bushfires, authorities say some of the deadly conflagrations that have burned at least 741,000 acres were intentionally set.

“Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of ‘mass murder’ after investigators said arsonists may have set some of Australia’s worst wildfires in history,” reports the Associated Press. The conflagration was fueled by high temperatures and drought conditions.

There have been 173 confirmed fatalities from the fires, and the final death toll could top 200, Bloomberg reported late in the day. Some people never knew about the fire risk until flames were blazing at their doors, making escape impossible.

“Two people were charged with arson over separate fires in New South Wales,” reports an earlier Bloomberg article, based on information from police. “A 15-year-old boy was arrested Feb. 8 and charged with setting off an explosive that caused a blaze in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, while a 31-year-old was charged with lighting a fire north of the city.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was tearful as he described the “mass murder” on television, Bloomberg writes.

Federal attorney general Robert McClelland has told the Australian parliament that those who set the fires could be charged with murder—and that anyone who withholds information about the crimes could be charged as an accessory, reports Sky News.

“We would point out that the same criminal principles in respect to accomplices applies, and we would strongly recommend anyone who has information about the deliberate lighting of fires to approach the authorities to provide that information,” McClelland says.

Related coverage:

London Times: “Scores confirmed dead in worst fires in Australia’s history”

New York Times: “Death Toll Climbs in Australia Fires “

The Guardian: “The ‘continent of smoke’ is still burning”

National Geographic: “Australia Fire Photos”

Acreage figure updated at 3:43 p.m.; updated at 6:15 p.m. to include information from most recent Bloomberg article and link to London Times and New York Times coverage; updated at 8:25 p.m. to link to National Geographic photos.

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