UK ‘ready to assist’ Australia

By staff

The UK stands ready to assist Australia as it faces its worst wildfires in the country’s history.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister spoke to Kevin Rudd [the Australian prime minister] this morning to extend our sympathies to the Australian people, especially those families who have been affected by this tragedy.

“He praised Kevin Rudd’s leadership at this very difficult time, and said that the UK stood ready to provide any assistance that the Australian government wanted.”

Mr Rudd has described the worst wildfires in the country’s history as “mass murder”.

The death toll has now risen to over 130, and Mr Rudd claims the figure could rise even further in the coming days.

“This is a level of horror that few of us anticipated,” he told an Australian radio station.

“There are no words to describe it other than mass murder.”

Thousands of firefighters are continuing to flight around 25 separate fires, some of which are thought to be the result of arson.

Two fires north-east of Melbourne are described as major concerns, with both threatening urban centres.

Fires have burnt countless homes across the state of Victoria, with entire towns destroyed as unpredictable winds and high temperatures combined for the most deadly Australian bush fires in more than 25 years.

Victoria premier John Brumby confirmed he has accepted an offer for help from the national army as firefighters fight to contain the blazes.

“It’s obviously a tragic day and a tragic week in our history,” Mr Brumby said.

It is thought that at least one of the fires may have been reignited having been extinguished by firefighters.

New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees said arsonists face 25 years in jail if caught.

“We will throw the book at you if you are caught,” he told the AFP news agency.

Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe added: “Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes”.

He said there would be a “full, thorough investigation”.

The majority of deaths came in a small cluster of towns to the north of Melbourne, with 12 killed in Kinglake, four in Wandong, four in St Andrews and three in Strathewen.

“The school’s gone, the hall’s gone… some people left it too late,” a Strathewen resident told ABC local radio.

“We’ve lost friends, and we’re just waiting for more – children, loved ones.”

The town of Marysville, home to around 500 people, is said to have been burned to the ground on Saturday, though only one fatality was reported.

The Queen has expressed her shock at the destruction caused by this weekend’s fire.

“I send my heartfelt condolences to the families of all those who have died and my deep sympathy to the many that have lost their homes in this disaster,” the head of the commonwealth said.

“On so dreadful an occasion as this for Australia, the firefighters and other emergency services have been making extraordinary efforts to contain the situation and tend to those who have been injured.

“Please also convey to them my renewed admiration for all that they are doing.”