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Fires deadliest in Australia's history

WHITTLESEA, Australia - Troops and firefighters battled raging Australian wildfires Monday that have left at least 131 people dead amid a landscape of charred homes, bodies and devastated communities.

The wildfires have become the deadliest in Australia's history, destroying entire towns and wiping out families, and Australian officials have warned the death toll will likely rise further.

Amid the heartache, there was also anger as police revealed they suspected some of the fires were started by arsonists, whom Prime Minister Kevin Rudd accused of "mass murder".

"This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated," he said, later choking up with emotion as he recounted the messages of support that have arrived from around the world.

Parliament suspended normal business to mark what Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard called "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history".

Fires still burning

Thirty-one fires were still burning in the southeastern state of  Victoria, where all the deaths occurred, and nervous communities were on alert as the flames burned everything in their path at the whim of the winds.

They have swept through some 3,000 square kilometres, fed by tinderbox conditions after a prolonged heatwave.

A number of the smouldering ruins are now surrounded by crime scene tape as police probe whether arsonists were to blame.

"What do you say about anyone like that? There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Rudd said. AFP

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