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Two arrested for attack on black church

Whiteville, North Carolina (Agencies) - Two black men have been arrested and charged with arson in the burning last month of a black church, one of more than three dozen such fires under investigation across the southern states of America.

The men were charged in connection with the burning of Mount Tabor baptist church. Meanwhile, in a neighbouring county, the District Attorney ruled out race as a motive in an arson fire at another black church. On Tuesday, Billy Shawn Baxley, 17, who is white, was arrested at the fire at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Mr Baxley, a volunteer firefighter, confessed to starting the blaze.

The string of nearly 40 fires across the South in the last 18 months has raised fears of resurgent racism and spurred a federal investigation.

Earlier yesterday, President Bill Clinton hosted a summit of Southern governors to discuss the wave of black church burnings and said he doubted a conspiracy was involved even though many of the fires were racially motivated.

Mr Clinton, accused by Republicans of using the fires to score political points in an election year, brought in a bipartisan group of government leaders from eight states to try to plot a strategy for dealing with the crisis.

The President, the governors and top administration officials such as the Attorney General, Janet Reno, as well as three senators and four congressmen, discussed efforts to prosecute those responsible, rebuild churches and prevent new fires.

Fires have destroyed more than three dozen churches in the past 18 months, including two black churches in northeastern Mississippi on Monday.

"I do not believe, based on the evidence I have seen, that it is a conspiracy," Mr Clinton said, echoing the views of federal investigators. "On the other hand, I do believe a lot of these incidents are racially motivated and they tend to play off one another."

Mr Clinton, who made a much-publicised visit to the site of a burned church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, a week ago, said it was important to condemn the burnings even though such condemnations spotlight the fires and may increase the possibility of copycat blazes.

"I think this is a place where nearly 100 per cent of Americans are in accord and I think we just need to make our voices heard and we need to do the right thing. If we can do that I think we'll get the results that we want," he said.

The wave of fires has raised fears of a campaign of racially motivated violence and sparked anger from black community leaders who have attacked federal investigative efforts as half-hearted and ineffective.

But as evidence against a conspiracy, those arrested for burning black churches include a 13-year-old girl who held anti-Christian beliefs. The Washington Post reported yesterday that in the same relative time period as the black church burnings, there have been 23 suspicious fires at predominantly white churches, including one in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, this week.

Mr Clinton said the publicity will help rally communities against the burnings.

"If people will see that we're being effective in prosecuting these cases, more and more people will rally in their own communities," he said.