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Prison guards die in forest blaze

Dozens of Israeli guards trying to rescue prisoners threatened by the worst forest fire in the country's history have died when their bus became trapped in the same inferno.

As the guards raced toward the prison holding mostly Palestinians, a lone tree fell across the road, blocking their path. With no way out, many of them were burned alive inside the vehicle. Others perished while trying to flee the flames fed by brush left tinder-dry by lack of rain.

When the smoke cleared, at least 36 were dead.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The flames forced 12,000 people from their homes, levelled a village and threatened to cause irreparable harm to one of Israel's few forested areas. The fire was still burning out of control late on Thursday.

Israel issued a rare call for international assistance, a measure of the severity of the disaster. Turkey put aside recent tensions to pledge aid, and Netanyahu's office said Greece, Spain and Cyprus agreed to send firefighting helicopters. Additional aid was coming from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania, Jordan and Bulgaria.

Fire officials said the blaze had blackened some 1,600 acres (650 hectares).

Police also evacuated a university, three prisons and a hospital.

Investigators speculated that the fire could have been sparked accidentally, or it might have been deliberately set. But they largely ruled out any sort of attack by a Palestinian group.

The fire broke out around midday and quickly spread, fanned by unusually hot and dry conditions. Flames ripped through the Carmel forest in Israel's Galilee region, eventually reaching the coastal city of Haifa after jumping from place to place in the forest.

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