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Man arrested after South Oxfordshire council offices left devastated by triple arson attack

By Emma Clark

Police have found gas canisters at the scenes of three suspected arson attacks which ended with a devastating blaze at a council office.

The burnt-out wreckage of a car which crashed in to the South Oxfordshire District Council building moments before it became engulfed in flames was still resting in the foyer last night.

Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service led a massive operation to bring all three blazes under control and at its peak 27 crews were tackling the fires which started within 10 minutes of each other after 3am yesterday.

The first blaze was at a thatched house in Rokemarsh, followed minutes later by a second at Chadwick Howard Funeral Service and a third at the council offices, both in Benson Lane in the village of Crowmarsh Gifford and both reported in the same minute.

Thames Valley Police said a 47-year-old local man has been arrested on suspicion of arson and is currently in custody.

Superintendent Andy Boyd, of Thames Valley Police, said: "Gas canisters have been found at the location of all three of the fires. There were gas canisters in the vicinity of the car."

He added that an 80-year-old woman managed to escape the blaze at the thatched house and is helping officers with their investigation.

Mr Boyd added that gas canisters were found at the home of the 47-year-old suspect as well as at a second address in Roke during police searches.

The fires were last night under control and being dampened down, Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service said.

Eyewitness Adam Beasley said: "My mother said it was like a bomb. Then the police were on the scene, and fire engines followed soon after.

"In photos you can see a car which was parked up in the foyer. It's plainly an attack involving gas canisters, which would be like a bomb going off when it exploded."

Thames Valley Police said: "At this stage the police investigation is focusing on all three fires being linked and they are believed to be suspicious.

"This is being investigated as a criminal act and is not thought to be linked to any terrorist activity."

Images of the thatched house show a large part of the property destroyed by flames, while footage of the blaze at the council office show widespread damage and part of the building gutted by fire.

Co-owner of the funeral home Alistair Cox said he believed the business was targeted as a case of "mistaken identity".

"They probably thought the home was a gatehouse to the council. I've got no idea why they set fire to the council building," he said.

His father, funeral director Neil Cox (73) who lives next-door to the building, said he heard a noise at about 3.15am and went out to see a car driving away at speed.

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