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Church blazes 'No. 1 priority' for federal agency

Investigators looking at race, religion as factors

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    Alabama
    Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

    BOLIGEE, Alabama (CNN) -- The spate of church fires in rural Alabama is motivated by hate, a state official said Wednesday, but it's not clear whether arsonists are choosing their targets on the basis of race or religion.

    Referring to the first batch -- five fires in Bibb County -- "Four of the churches were predominantly white churches, the other one was an African-American church," state assistant insurance commissioner Ragan Ingram told CNN.

    "It's the other way around on this one. These were I believe all African-American churches." This time, four churches burned in rural western Alabama overnight Monday.

    "Obviously, somebody or somebodies are interested in burning down churches, whether it's hate against a race or a religion in general, we don't know." (Watch what evidence might nab the arsonist -- 1:29)

    Federal and state investigators were sifting Wednesday through evidence from the most recent set of fires, hoping to find clues into why the buildings were set ablaze.

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

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

    Monday's fires were started overnight, and investigators were looking for a motive, state assistant insurance commissioner Ragan Ingram told CNN.

    He also said the probe would try to determine if the fires were connected to the Bibb County fires, which have have been tied together as arson.

    The second set of fires might have been the work of a copycat, but, "we would not be surprised if all nine were linked together in a group," he said.

    Whoever started those fires likely had been in the area before, an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said. (An interactive map of the fires)

    "They've been around, they've searched it out, they might have traveled back here as a hunter," Special Agent in Charge Jim Cavanaugh said. "Somebody in the area knows probably who these people are and they need to give us a call."

    At Morning Star Missionary Baptist in Boligee, investigators found a footprint on a door, indicating forced entry, and a tire track. They also determined that the fire began near the pulpit.

    ATF assistant director Mike Bouchard said similar burn patterns were found at the four churches, which "burned for a long time before anyone noticed."

    The ATF said Monday it was interested in a dark-colored SUV seen near the Bibb County fires, David Hyche said. In addition, the agency offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

    Bouchard said people need to report anything suspicious, even other vehicles.

    "I know they've heard a lot of things, that people are looking for certain types of ehicles," Bouchard said. "The one thing they need to remember is: No one has seen anybody in any vehicle set a fire yet.

    "We want to make sure they keep an open mind and report any suspicious activity they see."

    The FBI said Friday it had opened a civil rights case into the series of fires in Bibb County. A sixth fire, in adjacent Chilton County, has been ruled accidental and determined to be unrelated, Ingram said Tuesday.

    "The civil rights violation would be based on the religion of the people," FBI special agent Nancy Nelson told CNN.

    In the late 1990s, three black churches in Boligee -- about 55 miles southwest of Centreville -- were set ablaze. Those fires have never been solved, Cavanaugh told CNN last week.

    Ongoing investigation

    Investigators on Wednesday are expected to finish collecting evidence at Galilee Baptist Church, near Panola in Sumter County and Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, near Boligee in Greene County, which were destroyed.

    The other two fires damaged, but did not destroy, Dancy First Baptist Church, south of Aliceville in Pickens County and Spring Valley Baptist Church, near Emelle in Sumter County. Those fires have been confirmed as arson, Ingram said.

    The damage to Spring Valley "wasn't that bad" and is considered an attempted fire, said ATF spokesman Austin Banks.

    Three of the churches burned last week -- Ashby Baptist, Pleasant Sabine and Rehobeth Baptist -- were destroyed, and Old Union Baptist and Antioch Baptist were damaged. The churches were in a small area near U.S. 82 and Centreville, the county seat, about 45 miles southwest of Birmingham, officials said.

    Alabama Gov. Bob Riley was scheduled to travel Wednesday to the western Alabama church sites.

    CNN's David Mattingly contributed to this report.

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