Page last updated at 08:17 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Australian man charged with arson

A fire investigator examines the remains of a burnt out car in Victoria state

Australian police have charged a man with lighting one of the country's deadly bushfires.

The 39-year-old was charged with arson causing death, for lighting a fire near Churchill in eastern Victoria state. The blaze killed at least 21 people.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described Australia's deadliest bushfires as mass murder.

At least 181 people were killed as the fires swept through Victoria in south-east Australia at the weekend.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has been charged on two counts of arson.

He faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years for the second arson charge.

He also faces unrelated charges of possessing child pornography.

He did not appear in court in Morwell to hear the charges. His lawyer has described him as psychologically unwell and in a fragile mental state.

Wrecked properties in Marysville

After being remanded in custody, the man was transferred to the state capital Melbourne, police say for his own safety because of public anger.

He will appear in court there on Monday.

Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon has said it was possible a devastating blaze that killed at least 15 people in the town of Marysville was also the work of arsonists.

Marysville - a town that was virtually wiped out - remains cordoned off.

Investigators are still scouring the town where 80% of buildings were destroyed, and they had not been able to identify and remove all bodies, State Premier John Brumby said.

In other developments:

• Two men questioned in connection with allegations of looting in a fire-hit area have been released without charge

• Police have published a photo-fit of a man wanted for questioning over a suspicious fire that started on Thursday in the Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe. The fire has been brought under control

• Firefighters are still trying to battle at least a dozen different blazes

• The tally of homes destroyed is now more than 1,800, and the number of people left homeless more than 7,000

• The Australian government plans to hold a national day of mourning and has promised to remove bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented the creation of a nationwide fire alert system.

• More than 150 actors, sports stars, politicians and musicians have taken part in a fundraising telethon.

Latest location of fires

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