EL KALA: Algerian firefighters on Thursday battled two dozen blazes fanned by hot winds that have killed at least 38 people and left destruction across the drought-hit North African country.
Deadly forest fires have become an annual scourge in the North African country, where climate change is turning large areas into a tinderbox in the baking summer months.
As residents have lost their homes to the flames, authorities have been accused of being ill-prepared, with few firefighting aircraft available, despite record casualties in last year's blazes.
The justice ministry has launched an enquiry into the possibility that some of the blazes were started deliberately, after comments to that effect by Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud.
At least 38 people have been killed including more than 10 children, according to multiple sources, including local journalists and the fire service.
Most were in the El Tarf region near Algeria's eastern border with Tunisia, an area which has been sweltering in 48 degree Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) heat.
At least 200 more people have suffered burns or respiratory problems, according to various Algerian media.
Algerian television showed people fleeing their burning homes, women carrying children in their arms.
A journalist in El Tarf described "scenes of devastation" on the road to El Kala in the country's far northeast.
"A tornado of fire swept everything away in seconds," he said by telephone. "Most of those who died were surrounded while visiting a wildlife park."
An AFP team in El Kala saw burned-out cars, exhausted people and charred trees amid the strong smell of smoke.
A witness, who asked not to be named, said 12 people had been burned to death in their bus as they tried to escape when the fire ripped through a wildlife park.
The fire service said on Thursday afternoon that 1,700 firefighters had been deployed to battle the fires, of which 24 were still raging.
A journalist in the mountainous area of Souk Ahras said that a huge blaze in a forest nearby had sparked panic in the city of half a million people, where nearly 100 women and 17 newborn babies had to be evacuated from a hospital.
LACK OF AIRCRAFT
The scenes sparked fears of a repeat of the large-scale fires of last year which killed at least 90 people and ravaged 100,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the country's north.
That disaster provoked bitter criticism of authorities over the lack of fire-fighting aircraft.
Authorities have rented a Russian Beriev BE 200 water bomber plane, but it has suffered a breakdown and is not expected to be operational again until Saturday, Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said.
The civil protection service and the army do have access to several firefighting helicopters.
Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Africa's biggest country, which has over four million hectares of forest.
One specialist, who asked not to be named, said that in the 1980s the country had 22 Grumman aircraft for battling forest fires but that they had been "sold on the cheap, without any alternative solution being proposed".
Algeria had agreed to buy seven firefighting aircraft from Spanish firm Plysa, but cancelled the contract following a diplomatic row over the Western Sahara in late June, according to specialist website Mena Defense.
Since early August, fires have destroyed over 800 hectares of forest and 1,800 hectares of woodlands, according to Beldjoud, who said some had been caused by arson.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Aymen Benabderrahmane defended the government's response to the fires, saying strong winds had exacerbated them and promising that "authorities are deploying all their means" to extinguish the blazes. -- AFP