/ 29 August 2007

New wildfires in Greece as anger rises

More wildfires have broken out in Greece and others rekindled as anger rose over the government’s handling of catastrophic blazes that have laid waste to vast stretches of the Greek countryside and killed at least 64 people.

The fires are dominating political debate before parliamentary elections set for September 16. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough — and its suggestions that the fires resulted from an organised attack — could hurt Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined in battling the fires that first broke out on Thursday and burned nearly 200 000ha in the first three days, leaving behind a landscape of blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and dead livestock.

Firefighting efforts on Tuesday concentrated on the Seta area of Evia island and on the village of Matesi near Zaharo in the western Peloponnese. Another blaze broke out in Grammatiko, near ancient Marathon, but the fire department said that one was under control by nightfall.

Adding to the unease, a magnitude-five earthquake shook the fire-ravaged south, panicking residents although there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Most of the firefighters sent in by 21 countries were operating in the Peloponnese, fire-department spokesperson Nikos Diamandis said. He said 18 planes and 18 helicopters would be used to drop water on blazes in that southern region, where he said the situation was improving.

”The picture we have gives us some optimism,” Diamandis said. ”We have a good picture and hope for some good results.”

From the northern border with Albania to the southern island of Crete, fires have ravaged expanses of forest and farmland.


The devastation has infuriated Greeks, who already had been stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July and are complaining of an inadequate effort by the conservative government to confront the latest disaster. The September 16 ballot will be ”the elections of rage”, the Athens newspaper To Vima said in a front-page headline.

The government, which declared a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday, has announced a series of financial and material benefits and aid for those affected by the fires. It budgeted a few hundred million euros for immediate relief, although the bill is sure to go higher, the Finance Ministry said.

But many said authorities’ response to the crisis had been disorganised.

The government ”has been woefully unable to deal with the major issue of the fires all summer”, said George Papandreou, the main opposition socialist leader. ”Unfortunately, it didn’t even manage to save people’s lives, their property and their homes.”

The government’s suggestions that the fires were the result of an organised plan of arson caused confusion and anger.

Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras implied on Sunday that a deliberate plan was in motion.

”We can say that this truly constitutes an asymmetric threat,” he said without offering any specifics. He said the secret service and anti-terrorism squad had joined police in investigating the blazes.

Karamanlis also implied arson was to blame, saying on Saturday it could not be coincidence that so many fires broke out simultaneously in different areas.

Socialist party spokesperson Yiannis Ragoussis accused the government of ”trying to create a September 11 type of climate” by implying Greece was facing a terrorist threat. ”It is in fact a communications strategy” for election day, he said.

The political squabbling drew an indirect barb from President Karolos Papoulias, who urged his fellow Greeks to show ”maturity”.

”It is a national tragedy. We all know this and it is the duty of all of us in these times to show maturity, to face this tragedy,” Papoulias said.

Some people blamed the catastrophe on a previous government’s decision in 1998 to transfer responsibility for battling wildfires from the forestry department to the national fire department.

”We used to have one service that fought the fires where they broke out, and a second that focused on protecting homes,” said Nikos Bokaris, head of the Panhellenic Union of Forestry Experts. ”Now there is nobody in the forests, and the fire brigades take up positions in village squares and streets.” But by the time the flames reach a village, the fire has grown too much, he said. — Sapa-AP