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Tuesday, March 31, 1998 Published at 18:58 GMT 19:58 UK

World: Americas

Rains fall on Brazil's burning forests
image: [ Brazil was seeking more helicopters and planes to tackle the blaze ]
Brazil was seeking more helicopters and planes to tackle the blaze

The first rain for several months has been falling on an area of northern Brazil where forest fires have been raging for weeks, reports say.

The change in weather came as United Nations experts were due to arrive in the area to assess what kind of international help was needed to fight the fires.

BBC correspondent Candace Piette: Aid delays stem from lack of political interest (0'38')
The Brazilian Government, which has rejected previous UN offers of help, has been strongly criticised for its slow response to the crisis. But a BBC correspondent in São Paolo says the authorities now seem committed to the relief effort.

First hand experience

More than 1,500 firefighters from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are currently tackling the flames, but experts believe only rain can extinguish the blaze.

[ image: Fire threatens Indian communities]
Fire threatens Indian communities
Five UN representatives are to travel to the remote Roraima region - three others will remain in the capital, Brasilia.

"We absolutely have to see the situation first hand," said Carlos Monteiro Pereira, the leader of the UN team.

El Niño could be to blame

The fires were started by the traditional farming techniques of local farmers who burnt off stubble to clear their land.

They blazed out of control because of a severe drought, which is being blamed on the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Line of fire 220km long

Although the area around the state capital, Boa Vista, is no longer burning so strongly, the blaze appeared to be moving southwards, deeper into the Amazon rainforest.

And to make things worse some local farmers were still starting new fires.

Satellite images released on Monday by the Brazilian Government show a line of fire around 220km long.

Most of the savannah grasslands around the rainforest have now been burnt, destroying the small farms of thousands of families and killing cattle.

The state governor said about 20,000 cattle had died of hunger and thirst.

More planes requested

Roraima state is the size of Britain, but when the crisis began it had just 11 fire engines and fewer than 100 fire fighters.

There are now more than 1,500, including reinforcements from Argentina and Venezuela, plus several helicopters.

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