Recriminations begin as Israel brings fatal wildfire under control

Israeli and foreign firefighters yesterday succeeded in bringing the worst wildfire in the country's history under control, but political tensions smouldered within prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition as officials were blamed for the disaster.

The fire, which began on Thursday, killed 41 people, scorched more than 12,000 acres of woodland and exposed the country's lack of preparation to deal with such an inferno.

Israeli media quoted internal security minister Yitzhak Aharanovich as telling Mr Netanyahu yesterday that the firefighting efforts in the Carmel area near the northern city of Haifa were nearing completion.

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"There is almost complete control and there are no additional (burning] points right now," Mr Aharanovich said.

Israeli officials involved in combating the blaze singled out for credit the efforts of an American Boeing 747 supertanker aircraft that dropped some 21,000 gallons of sea water on the Carmel Forest. "It completely silenced a fire source that had us very worried," an official said.

The fire - which police say was caused by two teenagers who failed to extinguish a campfire - caught Israel without any planes to combat it, forcing Mr Netanyahu to seek help from about a dozen countries, including RAF helicopters.

A total of 34 aircraft were involved in combating the blaze yesterday, according to Boaz Rakiya, a spokesman for the firefighters.

The Palestinian Authority put aside its differences with Israel to send 21 firefighters in three vehicles into Israel.

"For a long time I have dreamed of visiting Haifa but to my great sorrow I have come on a day of sadness filled with fire," said the Palestinain contingent's head, Ibrahim Aish.

He added: "We view our assistance as a humanitarian action. Palestinians view this disaster with great sorrow because what happened could fan out in any place.

"From the first day we planned to come and help."

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas phoned Mr Netanyahu to express condolences over the Israelis killed by the blaze.

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Most of them were new prison guard trainees seeking to evacuate 500 inmates from a prison when there bus was trapped by flames.

In Gaza, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haninya, was, however, less sympathetic, terming the fire "a punishment by God" against the Jewish state.

Even before the blaze was brought under control, there were calls for officials to be sacked amid embarrassment that a country which prides itself on its military might and disaster relief prowess needed to entreat the international community for assistance.The main target of criticism was the ultra-orthodox Shas party leader Eli Yishai, whose interior ministry is responsible for firefighting.

An Interior Ministry study last year showed Israel has the least number of firefighters per inhabitants of any Western country. Mr Yishai's acumen in raising government funds for the religious seminaries of his party was being bitterly contrasted by his critics with the dearth of money raised for firefighting.

"We need to take stock nationally as to how such an advanced,state achieved such a resounding failure," social affairs minister Isaac Herzog said.

Mr Yishai said he had done his best to get adequate funding for firefighting but the government had chosen to continue policies of his predecessors that ignored and neglected firefighting forces.

The Cabinet convened yesterday in the fire-stricken town of Tirat Carmel, with Mr Netanyahu pledging to rebuild the area "in the quickest possible way".

It approved an emergency aid package of $16.5 million for the stricken area.