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Fires Damage Four More Ala. Churches

Fires were reported at four more rural Baptist churches Tuesday following rash of suspected arsons that burned five others south of Birmingham last week, a state official said.

Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said two of the churches were destroyed. All four fires were reported Tuesday morning and were believed to started overnight, he said.

"Obviously we're going to investigate these as suspected arsons," Ingram said.

A string of fires early Friday destroyed three rural Baptist churches and damaged two others in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham. The

about 25 miles south of Birmingham were set "as fast as they could drive from one location to the next," Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said.

Jim Cavanaugh, head of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office for Alabama and Tennessee, said it was clear those fires were purposely set. "Obviously they're arson. The thing is — what is the motivation?"

The four fires reported Tuesday were in three sparsely populated counties in west Alabama near the Mississippi line. Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle were damaged, Ingram said. The other two, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee and Gallilee Baptist in Panola, were destroyed.

In the past five years, Alabama has had 59 church fires, 19 of those ruled arsons, Ingram said.

Agents investigating the five Bibb County fires said Tuesday that they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle in connection with the blazes.

Members of Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield told The Associated Press in interviews that they saw a dark Nissan Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to put out a fire shortly after 4 a.m. Friday.

Investigators believe all five Bibb County fires were linked, Ingram said. He said they are pursuing several leads but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."

The FBI is looking into whether fires are a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, said FBI Special Agent Raymond Zicarelli in Birmingham. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered in the probe.

The state fire marshal's office said Tuesday that it had ruled another church fire, Thursday afternoon in rural Chilton County, an accident.

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