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Man on arson charges named

THE death toll from Australia's bushfire disaster rose by eight to 189 yesterday with warnings it would continue to climb, as a court released 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. "You can imagine the condition, the conditions that were out there, the intensity of the heat."

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

Prosecutors said the police investigation into the fire was continuing, and more than 200 witnesses would be interviewed. The case of Sokaluk, a 39-year-old man, went before a court packed with media and onlookers yeterday, but he chose to stay in police protective custody rather than attend.

He was arrested last Friday and charged with one count of arson causing death and one of lighting a wildfire in connection to a blaze known as the Churchill fire. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge and 15 years on the second. He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a five-year maximum sentence.

Experts say deadly arson in wildfire cases is difficult to prove, partly because different wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people. The Churchill fire was one such combination of blazes.

Police suspect arson in at least two other fires, but have ruled out foul play in the rest.

On a page appearing to belong to Sokaluk on the social networking Website MySpace, he describes himself as a lovelorn single man who's hoping to find a young wife.

A Facebook group entitled "Brendan Sokaluk, the Victorian Bushfires Arsonist, must burn in hell" had already attracted more than 1,200 members by yesterday morning.

Australian Prime Minister Rudd has declared February 22 as a national day of mourning.


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