Firefighters have overpowered the deadly blaze which tore through a forest in northern Israel after a four-day battle aided by aircraft from around the world, officials said yesterday.

“The fire is under control. There are no longer any major seats of the blaze. The task now is to make sure it doesn’t break out again,” fire chief Shimon Romah said.

And Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aaronovitch, quoted by his spokesman, said earlier: “I hope we will have finished in the coming hours” as aircraft from several countries worked to damp down the zone.

The tide appeared to have turned as a flotilla of international firefighting planes was reinforced yesterday by a Boeing 747 supertanker, the world’s largest water-bombing aircraft, rented from the United States.

“I haven’t seen any flame for the last hour. It is better than I have seen in the last three days. We definitively have the back of it (the fire) broken,” British helicopter pilot Euan Johnson said at Haifa military base.

By late yesterday morning, the Boeing supertanker was pouring 76,000 litres (20,500 gallons) of water and flame retardant on the fire on each pass.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, acting on the advice of professional firefighters, said no more firefighting planes from abroad were needed and thanked the many nations which contributed.

Assistance arrived quickly, with at least 16 nations offering aircraft, personnel or materiel.

The fire ravaged at least 5,000 hectares of land and five million trees in pine-covered hills known locally as “little Switzerland”. With the balance swinging, meteorologists said rain was expected within 24 hours.

In an act of solidarity, ministers held their weekly Cabinet meeting in the Haifa suburb of Tirat HaCarmel, where some residents were evacuated from the path of the flames.

They opened the session with a minute’s silence for victims of the fire, as Mr Netanyahu pledged compensation for the injured and homes lost. The fire, centred on the Carmel hill range, just south and east of Haifa, claimed 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people to flee their homes. It was the largest inferno in Israel’s 62-year history.

An Israel in mourning during its religious holiday of Hanukkah buried 27 of the victims yesterday, with full military honours.

“They died trying to save lives. They were the best in our unit,” said prisons authority officer Avi Segev at one burial at a military cemetery at Dimona in southern Israel. It was his fifth funeral of the day.

Most of those killed by the fire were prison guards on board a bus who had been trying to evacuate inmates from a facility in the forest, officials had said.

They died “trying to save terrorists”, a reference to Palestinian prisoners at the jail in the forest, a policeman said softly at the burial.

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