Saturday, August 25, 2007

41 die as fires ravage Greece

ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- Greek authorities and counter-terrorism squads are investigating whether arsonists started some of the forest fires that have claimed at least 41 lives as they sweep across the south of the country.

The blazes have destroyed numerous homes and put a damper on political campaigning ahead of next month's national elections, authorities say.

Many firefighters have told CNN they are suspicious of the fire's source, given several witness reports that the blazes cropped up simultaneously along a 20-kilometer (12 mile) front of lush greenery in southern Greece.

Counter-terrorism squads have been sent to investigate and authorities are terming the fires a "criminal act."

In the past 24 hours, hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and planes loaded with water have been battling the blazes on a dozen different fronts, authorities said. Yet, despite their efforts, officials Saturday said the flames had not been tamed.

"Our emergency services are over stretched and it is humanely impossible to battle this force of nature," a top fire official told CNN, highlighting the amount of stress emergency crews have been faced with lately.

The fires were mainly concentrated in the southern Greece Peloponnese region, but on Saturday afternoon heavy smoke billowing above Mount Hymettus southeast of Athens signaled a new fire had broken out.

It was burning close to Athens International Airport, forcing officials to close a nearby highway. Watch footage of the fires sweeping across Greece Video

A day after government officials appealed to Greece's European Union allies for "urgent help," an EU statement said 30 countries had offered their assistance.

France on Saturday was slated to send two planes to help quell the fires and Norway and Germany pledged to send aircraft as well, the statement said.

Efforts to temper the flames have been stymied due to the sweltering heat wave currently gripping the area, which has left forests and scrubland parched.

That, coupled with strong winds fanning the flames, have led authorities to call this the country's worst fire season on record. Since June more than 3,000 fires have razed thousands of hectares of forests and scrubland across the country -- nearly triple last year's total -- according to officials.

Scores of people have been killed or hospitalized in the southern Greece Peloponnese region.

A mother, her child and at least seven other people died while trying to flee a burning, wooded area in the mountainous villages in the western Peloponnese, near the town of Zaharo -- one of the worst hit areas, according to a fire brigade official. On Friday, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis said he planned to visit the area.

Further south, six people -- including two French tourists found by rescue crews in an embrace -- were killed in a forest fire that swept near their hotel in the town of Areopolis, located 190 km (120 miles) southwest of Athens.

Meanwhile, scores of people have been hospitalized with severe burns and respiratory problems, state-run television reported.

Emergency crews leading the charge to evacuate several hotels and villages in the south have said they are overstretched.

As the deadly forest fires rage, Greece prepares for national elections, which are slated for September 16.

Greece's ruling party has called for a temporary suspension of political campaigning as a sign of respect to those who perished in the flames Friday and flags on government buildings were flying Saturday at half staff.

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