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Feds Say Church Fires No. 1 Priority

Flames were visible near the pulpit of Morning Star Baptist Church and smoke was pouring out its windows when Johnny Archibald arrived to a grimly familiar scene in Alabama.

Archibald, who lives near the Boligee church, said that when he saw his church in flames Tuesday he immediately thought of the fires that consumed five other churches last week.

"I don't know what's going on," he said. "It's just sickness."

Morning Star Baptist and three other rural, predominately black churches in West Alabama were damaged or destroyed by fires Tuesday, and five mostly white churches were attacked last week, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Acosta. Because the attacks appear to equally target black and white churches, authorities say they don't appear to be racially motivated.

Authorities are searching for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle with two white males inside reports CBS News affiliate WHNT.

FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators were working on the assumption that all nine of the Alabama church fires were connected.

"Clearly there's a suspected link," Burrus told The Associated Press from Washington, D.C. "Common sense tells you there is a clear indication these fires are going to be linked."

Archibald, from Morning Star, pulled a door of the sanctuary just as it was going up in flames, to have some sort of evidence Acosta reports. Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac told CBS News that a shoe print was found on the door that was likely kicked open by arsonists.

All nine churches are Baptist, the dominant faith in the area. Four in Bibb County are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, while the other five are not.

At three of the latest burned churches, the fires appeared to erupt in the sanctuary near the altar, according to church members and authorities. Two of the fires were found to be arson.

Rich Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said more than 50 agents were assigned to the investigation.

"This is our No. 1 priority nationally," he said.

The four latest fires took place at churches off rural roads, about 10-20 miles apart. They were in a cluster of three counties, about 60 miles from the Bibb County area where the five other churches were burned.

The FBI said it was looking into whether the Bibb County fires were a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, and state and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman reports many people here remember church burnings from a decade ago. Just two counties away, three black churches were lost and no one was ever caught. In Bibb County, no one wants a repeat of justice denied.

"We're going to do everything we can to bring these people to justice," said Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.

The arsonist struck the remote churches very quickly. He clearly knew this rural area and many locals suspect he lives among them.

Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said earlier that investigators believed all five Bibb County fires were linked. He said they were pursuing several leads, but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."

Agents said Tuesday they were looking for a dark-colored SVU — possibly a Nissan Pathfinder — in connection with the blazes.

Members of one of the churches burned Friday — the Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield — told The Associated Press that they saw a dark Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to douse the flames.

In Boligee, Archibald said he was told by a resident that a sport-utility vehicle had been seen speeding through an intersection near the church.

By late morning, firefighters at Boligee were spraying down the smoking rubble of Morning Star Baptist. Burned to its concrete block foundation, all that remained of the wood-frame building was the front steps and handrail.

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