Mon, February 16, 2009
World > Asia-Pacific > Deadly bushfire in Australia

Call for calm as Australia wildfire arson case in court

2009-02-16 06:06:08 GMT2009-02-16 14:06:08 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

A forensic team from Darwin and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory sifts through the ashes of a house looking for the remains of a family in Phesant Creek some 100km north of Melbourne on February 12, 2009.[Agencies]

MELBOURNE – Australian police called for calm Monday as a suspected arsonist was named in court after a swarm of wildfires killed more than 180 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

A magistrate lifted an order suppressing the name of 39-year-old Brendan Sokaluk, who prosecutors say started a fire that killed some 11 people and razed about 200 homes.

Sokaluk, who has been charged with arson causing death and intentionally lighting a bush fire, did not appear in court and was remanded in custody until the next hearing on April 14.

He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail if convicted on the arson charge.

Sokaluk was arrested in a small country town last Friday over a bush fire near Churchill east of Melbourne before being transferred to the Victoria state capital for his own safety.

Earlier, state police chief Christine Nixon had appealed to the public to stay away from the court.

"We hope that we don't have to deal with a gang of people who are angry and concerned about this arrest. We know people are," state police commissioner Christine Nixon told reporters.

"Coming to court and protesting is not an appropriate thing to do.

"We will make sure he is protected and can go before the justice system, as he should, and be dealt with through that process."

There was a heavy police presence in court for the hearing Monday, but no angry protesters turned up.

Police are still investigating some of the other fires that raged through Victoria state, with arson suspected in at least one other major blaze that destroyed the town of Marysville and killed up to 100 people.

"Our teams are working hard. We hope to be able to come to some conclusions about that fire (Marysville), particularly, in the not too distant future," Nixon said.

Firefighters were still battling eight blazes burning out of control as the government announced Monday that a national day of mourning for the victims would be held.

The death toll of 181 is expected to rise as more bodies are found in the charred rubble of homes and towns, police say.

(Agencies)

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