LONDON (AP) -- Five people died and the home of a striking firefighter was hit by a suspected arson attack as firefighters continued their national walkout Saturday.
Soldiers manned antiquated fire trucks and firefighters stood on picket lines as politicians and union leaders traded blame for the strike that has hobbled Britain's fire service.
Troops and their military outdated ``Green Goddess'' engines were called to several serious blazes, filling in for 50,000 firefighters who walked off the job Friday morning.
A 27-year-old man died in a house fire in Eccles, south of London _ the first fatal fire of the strike. A military team at the scene was joined by striking firefighters who left their picket line to battle the blaze.
Another man died in what police described as a suspicious fire at his home in Earlsdon, central England. Two Green Goddesses arrived within five minutes of receiving the emergency call.
Army firefighters were also called to a house fire in Liverpool, northern England, in which an elderly woman died, and a blaze in a mobile home in Blackpool, northwest England, in which a man died.
A fourth man died in a house fire in Woodstock, north of London. Non-striking firefighters dealt with the blaze.
The wife and two children of a striking firefighter escaped unhurt after a lighted paper was pushed through the front door of their home in Kenilworth, central England. The family was alerted by smoke alarms. Forensic officers and detectives are investigating the incident.
The firefighters began an eight-day strike to back their demand for a hefty pay increase after last-minute talks with local authorities broke down early Friday.
Both the Fire Brigades Union and employers said they had been on the verge of a deal, and blamed Prime Minister Tony Blair's government for scuttling the negotiations.
``You have got a group of trade unionists who have not taken industrial action for 25 years. They reached an agreement with their employers and suddenly some mysterious hand stepped in and stopped the agreement, scuppered the agreement,'' said Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union
``It is almost as if someone does not want this agreement to succeed,'' he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
The union had demanded a 40 percent pay raise _ to take a firefighter's basic salary to $49,600 _ but had said it would consider a 16-percent increase. Local authorities that employ the firefighters offered 16 percent, but said any wage increase must be linked to cost-saving changes in working practices.
But the government has come under increasing pressure as leaders from the powerful GMB general workers' union and the Trades Union Congress pledged their support for the firefighters, suggesting the possibility of wider industrial unrest.
``The government has completely lost control of the agenda. This is no longer just a dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the government. It has descended into a fight between the government and the whole union movement,'' said John Edmonds, GMB general secretary.
Blair's government insists no more money is available to fund a pay settlement and has warned against allowing inflationary rises.
Fire Service Minister Nick Raynsford said the proposed deal was not affordable.
``We were presented with the prospect of literally several hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure without any means of verifying that the modernization which is fundamental to this could actually be achieved and we were being asked to fund it,'' he told the BBC. ``Now are you really surprised that we said we really can't agree on this basis?''
Raynsford said he hoped talks to end the strike would resume soon. The dispute has already divided British opinion.
Most newspapers Saturday criticized both the union and the government. In an editorial, The Guardian said ``nobody involved in the fire strike _ government, employers or union _ has come well out of the last 48 hours.''
The Times called the strike ``indefensible'' and the union's pay demand ``unconscionable,'' but the Daily Mirror accused ``macho Labor'' of wanting ``a fight to the death'' with the union.
The leader of Britain's largest union federation said he was surprised and hurt by the behavior of Blair's Labor Party government toward trade unionists, its traditional supporters.
``The government's clumsy, shoot-from-the-hip approach needs urgent revision,'' John Monks, general-secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told a union conference Saturday.
``We all know about family rows,'' he added. ``They are the worst kind if they are allowed to fester. They need urgent resolution. This dispute feels like a family row to me.''
Firefighters walked out last week for 48 hours -- their first national strike in 25 years. Some observers have expressed fears that 19,000 soldiers will not be able to cope with the current longer strike, and two more planned to begin Dec. 4 and Dec. 16.
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