updated 3/18/2006 1:30:15 PM ET 2006-03-18T18:30:15

Israeli vets on Saturday culled thousands of turkeys suspected of having the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, trying to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the Holy Land.

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Late Saturday, Israel Channel Two TV reported the deadly strain had been officially confirmed at one of four suspected locations. Final test results for the other farming communities are expected early next week.

The vets will cull more than 200,000 birds in the next 48 hours, Dafna Yarisca, Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman, said.

Thousands of turkeys died in four farming villages—Ein Hashlosha, Holit, Sdeh Moshe and Nahshon—in southern and central Israel on Wednesday and Thursday.

Health and Agriculture ministry officials said initial tests led them to believe it was almost certainly the deadly strain of bird flu. The communities were isolated and the culling began early Saturday.

Health officials worldwide fear H5N1 could evolve into a virus that can be transmitted easily between people and become a global pandemic, but there has been no confirmation of this happening yet. At least 97 people have died from the disease worldwide, with most victims infected directly by sick birds.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, fearing the flu would spread into their territories, buried alive hundreds of chickens on Saturday after security services found they had been illegally smuggled into the West Bank.

Palestinian Health Ministry officials and police took the two truckloads of chickens to a trash heap south of the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, where they were dumped into an enormous hole. Bulldozers buried the chickens.

The ministry officials said they had taken blood samples from the chickens, but did not want to risk waiting two or three days for the results.

In the southern Israeli communal farm of Ein Hashlosha, veterinary officials donned in white protective suits poisoned the turkeys’ water early Saturday.

Several hours later the turkeys began dying. Bulldozers dug 50-foot deep holes nearby. The turkeys, piled onto shipping containers, were dumped in the holes and covered with lime powder to speed up the decomposing process.

Dr. Shimon Pokamonsky, head veterinarian for fowl diseases at the Agriculture Ministry, told Israel Radio that the flocks in Ein Hashlosha and Holit would be destroyed by Saturday evening. “We have started the process in Sdeh Moshe and in Nahshon,” he added.

The H5N1 strain has killed or forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003, and recently spread to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

In Israel, four farm workers hospitalized Friday with flu symptoms have been given a clean bill of health, the Health Ministry said.

The Agriculture Ministry has quarantined the four infected farming communities, barring people from entering a 1.9 mile-radius. The ministry is also testing foul within a 6.2 mile-radius of those areas to ensure the flu has not spread, Pokamonsky said.

Residents in the areas have been asked to minimize their travels, and cars entering and leaving the towns are being disinfected, said Pesach Rosen, secretary of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, a communal farm.

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