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Australian fires toll rises as arsonist faces court

THE death toll from Australia's bushfire disaster rose by eight to 189 today with warnings the toll would continue to climb, as a court relased details of a man charged with lighting one of the deadly fires.

The wildfires in the southern Victoria state wiped out entire small towns on February 7, destroyed more than 1,800 houses and left 7,000 people homeless in Australia's worst natural disaster in a century.

Police confirmed more bodies had been found in the ashes of the disaster, but said the final death toll would not be known until police could identify those killed.

"I must stress this is a very difficult and painstaking task," Assistant Commissioner Steve Fontana said today. "You can imagine the condition, the conditions that were out there, the intensity of the heat."

In the Victorian capital Melbourne, a magistrate lifted a secrecy order on the identity of Brendan Sokaluk, who faces two charges related to one of the February 7 fires that killed 11 people in Victoria's Gippsland region, east of Melbourne.

Prosecutors said the police investigation into the fire was continuing, and more than 200 witnesses would be interviewed. If convicted of the charges, Sokaluk faces up to 40 years in jail. He remains in jail and will reappear in court on May 26.

Shares in energy energy supplier SP AusNet dropped more than 13 percent to a one-month low of A$0.94 (US$0.61) today, before rallying to close 3.7 percent weaker at A$1.045, as the company said it faced legal action over the fires.

SP AusNet, which is controlled by Singapore Power, provides electricity to areas of Victoria affected by the fires. The company said legal action had been launched by groups which say a collapsed power line may have sparked some of the fires.

"We believe the claim is premature and inappropriate. SP AusNet will vigorously defend the claim," SP AusNet's spokeswoman Louisa Graham said in a statement.

Also today, coal-to-groceries conglomerate Wesfarmers Ltd said its insurance division was expected to lose A$13 million pre-tax from bushfire claims.

"I can't give an estimate of gross claims because there are still a lot of people who have been severely impacted who haven't yet got around to making claims," managing director Richard Goyder said after the company posted a 46 percent rise in first half profit to A$879 million.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has declared yesterday, February 22, to be a national day of mourning for the victims of the fires, with a national memorial service to be held in Melbourne.


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