Firefighters gain upper hand over Greek fires

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Greek firefighters gained the upper hand on Wednesday over widespread forest fires that have killed at least 63 people and left the government shaken by accusations of incompetence.

Thousands of Greeks were expected to attend a protest in Athens later on Wednesday to express their anger and dismay at the fires that have left thousands homeless after they devastated swathes of countryside for the last six days.

Blazes that had trapped villagers in parts of the Peloponnese peninsula were under control, but firefighters said winds could rekindle the flames, a daily occurrence which has dogged efforts to combat the worst wildfires Greece has ever known.

We have put the fires out, but we have to remain careful because the winds usually pick up in the afternoon, volunteer firefighter Costas Georgakopoulos, who had tackled the blaze in the Peloponnese town of Ploutochori, told Reuters.

The government told Reuters it estimated fire damage at least 0.6 percent of GDP, or 1.2 billion euros ($1.63 billion), and that it would apply for European Union emergency aid.

Thousands of people rushed to banks to claim a 3,000 euro initial government compensation handout.

I had 180 olive trees burned to the ground. I was dependent on that income, said 73-year-old Eleni Sokou after receiving his cash at a bank in Zakharo.

CARCASSES

As the flames died down, the destruction to the environment and economy of the fertile peninsula was painfully clear.

Among the burned trees on the mountainside near the village of Minthi, around 70 charred goat carcasses lay putrefying in the sun, the stench of rotting flesh drifting on the wind.

A local farmer said the goat herder had died with his animals. The body had been removed but the goats have to stay until a government vet counts them to assess compensation payments, he said.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has declared the worst fires on record a national emergency and called for unity and solidarity with the victims.

But opposition parties and many people bereaved by the disaster have accused authorities of doing too little too late.

The government has shown that it is completely incapable of managing this major crisis, said George Papandreou, leader of the Socialist PASOK party who hopes to unseat Karamanlis in parliamentary elections on September 16.

The government showed a weak response, inefficiency and what amounts to a criminal disregard, he said.

But one opinion poll suggested Papandreou was failing to capitalize on the crisis.

The MRB poll conducted on August 26-27 showed the ruling New Democracy party holding a 2 percentage point advantage with 35.2 percent of support to 33.2 percent for the Socialists.

PASOK said the poll was skewed and insisted the parties were now neck-and-neck.

In July some 10,000 people demonstrated after a smaller fire destroyed one of the few remaining forest areas near Athens, demanding it be reforested and not used for building land.

Many Greeks believe fires are often started by arsonists on behalf of property developers. The government has offered rewards of up to 1 million euros ($1.4 million) for help in finding arsonists.

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