Frantic Greeks flee villages, fires kill 63

 @ibtimes
on August 27 2007 2:02 PM

Thousands of Greeks threatened by towering walls of fire fled their homes on Monday as strong winds fanned blazes that have devastated the country and killed 63 people in four days.

Greek authorities sent helicopters to winch trapped people out of blazing hamlets, impossible to reach by land, and EU allies rushed to help.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's government deflected criticism it had failed to act quickly to stop the fires from spreading from the southern Peloponnese to Athens and the northern town of Ioannina, and pointed the finger at arsonists.

It cannot be an accident, government spokesman Theodore Roussopoulos said of the fires that have burned empty villages to the ground. He said the government would stand by its planned date for a parliamentary election on September 16.

In the Peloponnese, a popular tourist destination for its stunning scenery, plumes of black smoke poured from burning pine forests and olive groves, turning the sun a dark red and sometimes blotting it out.

We are burning ... Please help us. Where are the helicopters? a man screamed hoarsely into his mobile phone from the village of Frixa, trapped in flames.

It is coming over to us, look! said an elderly black-clad woman in the village of Skillountia as flames raced towards her from about 500 meters away. Where will I go? If the fire comes closer I must leave my house which is all I have.

On Sunday firefighters won a battle to save Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games in the Peloponnese peninsula, beating back fires menacing the ancient stadiums and temples.

ELECTION AS PLANNED

The September 16 parliamentary election will be held absolutely on schedule, said Roussopoulos, adding that the government would become the mother and father of every victim and help those whose homes had been destroyed.

About 2,000 protesters marched through the streets of Athens to parliament to show their anger at what they said was government incompetence.

I am absolutely furious; how could this happen to us? There was no planning at all and now we have 63 people dead, said Nicoleta Petsa, 30, who took her two children to the rally, organized by leftist and anti-globalization groups.

Earlier, opposition parties attacked the government, and Athens newspapers had frontpage headlines reading: Incompetent! Grief for the dead. Rage for the absence of State and Shame for the collapse of the state.

The government has offered rewards of up to one million euros ($1.4 million) for help in tracking down arsonists who it believes played a major role in starting the fires.

Many local mayors have accused rogue land developers of setting fires to make way for new construction. Three elderly people and two boys have been charged with starting fires.

While holidaymakers and locals stayed on to help firefighters, Greeks trapped by the flames turned to television networks for help, their frantic appeals often broadcast live.

We have been left at the mercy of God. We have no water or electricity. We have been fighting the fires with tractors and branches, a woman from Nemouta village in the Peloponnese told Antenna television.

The fires covered Athens in white ash that swirled around the temples of the Acropolis. The smell of smoke permeated the city and flags flew at half mast for three days of mourning.

Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, Greece has declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Appeals for aid have brought planes from France, Spain and Italy. Firefighters from Cyprus, France and Israel have been rushed in and help from another 10 countries was due on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou)

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