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Page last updated at 06:22 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Fire aftermath 'too distressing'

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Burnt-out vehicles and metal roofs are all that remain in Kinglake

Australian police are stopping some residents of bushfire-hit areas from returning to their homes, saying the scenes would be too gruesome.

In Marysville, north of Melbourne, there were still a number of charred bodies to be removed, police said.

While 181 deaths have been confirmed across the affected area so far, there are dozens of people missing.

Firefighters are still struggling against more than 20 fires, most of which are not yet under control.

Authorities in the state of Victoria, which for four days has been ravaged by the worst bushfires in Australia's history, say they are confident of catching arsonists they suspect are partly responsible.

Police are searching for two men suspected of starting a blaze late on Tuesday, which is now threatening a town in the region.

There have also been several reports of looting in the affected areas, according Victoria's Chief Commissioner of Police, Christine Nixon.

"Certainly some [firefighting] volunteers and citizens have told us that they have seen strange people in their neighbourhoods," she added.

While cooler weather continues to provide relief for firefighters, and residents of some fire-hit areas have been allowed to return to their homes, this emergency is far from over, says the BBC's Phil Mercer in Whittlesea, north of Melbourne.

Talk of arson in the town has provoked fury, our correspondent says, with many locals finding the prospect that some of the devastation may have been manmade incomprehensible, our correspondent adds.

Suspect sites

In Marysville, forensic investigators have been sifting through the ash-ridden remains of homes to identify those killed, but said some bodies were too badly burned to be identified.

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Bushfire video footage and survivors' stories

Local media reported that as many as 100 of the town's 519 residents may have died in the fires that left only a few houses standing.

Victoria state premier John Brumby said in some cases it would be weeks before positive identification could be made.

He added that with bodies still being collected, the death-toll was likely to "exceed 200 deaths".

A 100-strong police investigation squad has been set up, named Task Force Phoenix, and some scorched towns declared crime scenes.

The fires injured some 500 people, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and torching 365,000 hectares (902,000 acres) of land.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has pledged that damaged communities would be rebuilt, with no limit on federal spending, and described the possibility of arson as "murder on a grand scale".

One site where arson is suspected is Gippsland, east of Melbourne, which is among a number of sites which have been sealed off as possible crime scenes.

Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland said arsonists could face murder charges.

Latest location of fires



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