Sunday, September 2, 2007

Greece Buries Fire Victims, Hopes For Autumn Rain

From: Michele Kambas, Reuters

ARTEMIDA, Greece - Sobbing villagers on Sunday buried a Greek mother and her four children who died in destructive forest fires, as the first autumn rains raised hopes of dousing the flames that have killed 64 people.

Storms in northern Greece flooded two villages as firefighters continued to battle blazes in the southern Peloponnese region. Rains were expected across Greece from Sunday night.

"The burnt forests contributed to the floods, which swept cars into the sea," said fire brigade officer Giorgos Minos in the northern Halkidiki peninsula.

In the village of Artemida, perched on a charred Peloponnese mountain, about 200 villagers attended the funeral of the mother found dead still clutching her children, the most shocking image of the inferno's trail of destruction.

"I have run out of tears. Will it bring her and the children back?" said Loukia Papadimitropoulos, 64, one of black-clad villagers who sobbed as a string of hearses carried the white coffins to the village church.

The fires have raged for 10 days, forcing thousands to flee their homes, burning villages and large swathes of forest. On Sunday, an injured man died in hospital, raising the death toll to 64, including 7 firemen.


The conservative government has come under criticism for its handling of the crisis ahead of a September 16 parliamentary election, seen as crucial for the pace of reforms Greece needs to catch up with its euro zone partners.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis blamed arsonists for the fires and called for national unity. His government has doled out at least 107 million euros ($146.2 million) in compensation.

"It can't be a coincidence," he told the Kathimerini newspaper on Sunday, vowing again to punish the culprits. "Facts, eyewitnesses and police findings indicate intent."

The opposition socialist PASOK party has criticized the government but seems unable to capitalize on its woes.

Opinion polls show the ruling New Democracy party holding a 2 percentage point lead over PASOK but support for both parties has waned since the fires began.

The fires nearly destroyed ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, and their damage to the economy is estimated at 1.2 billion to 4 billion euros.

The European Commission said it could provide up to 200 million euros from a 'solidarity fund'.

Many Greeks believe rogue land developers set fires to make way for new construction. The World Conservation Union (IUCN), a Geneva-based global network of state and non-governmental groups, blamed the fires on inadequate rural planning.

"Greece ... will continue to face these crises year after year until legal and institutional issues pertaining to land development, changes in rural demographics and the collapse of traditional farming practices are addressed," said IUCN's Bill Jackson.

(Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou in Athens)

© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.

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