Greek government pilloried as fires rage

on August 28 2007 8:21 AM

Frantic Greek villagers fled as fire engulfed their homes, farms and forests on Tuesday in an inferno that has killed 63 people and prompted public outrage at the government's handling of the crisis.

Exhausted firefighters aided by foreign colleagues fought the raging forest blazes for a fifth day on Tuesday as public anger mounted three weeks before a snap parliamentary election.

I had to use 300 liters of wine to try to extinguish the fire around my house, said Georgios Dimopoulos from the village of Makistos in the southerly Peloponnese peninsula, hardest hit by the fires.

For 17 hours I fought with the blaze. We were left at the mercy of the flames. I could not tell if it was day or night, he told Reuters.

As the once picture-perfect Peloponnese continued to burn, accusations of incompetence mounted against a government overwhelmed by the enormity of the disaster.

The opposition Socialist PASOK party seized on the fires as an election issue, pouring scorn on the government's efforts and saying accusations of arson were an excuse for its weakness in responding to the crisis.

This government has proved to be totally incompetent, unable to handle the fire crisis, like all the other crises it encountered in its four-year administration, PASOK leader George Papandreou said on Monday.

Some 2,000 leftist protesters marched through Athens to parliament on Monday evening, shouting down with the government. Press headlines and distraught villagers criticized the pace of rescue efforts.

FIRES ON 25 FRONTS

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's government reacted to accusations that it had failed to move fast enough to control the fires -- stretching from the Peloponnese to Athens and the northwestern town of Ioannina -- by blaming them on an organized plan by arsonists.

It cannot be an accident, government spokesman Theodore Roussopoulos said, adding that the election, set for September16, would be held absolutely on schedule.

The government has offered rewards of up to 1 million euros ($1.4 million) for help in tracking down arsonists and asked a public prosecutor to see if they can be prosecuted as terrorists.

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.

Overstretched fire brigades said they were battling 25 fire fronts on Tuesday. Greece has declared a nationwide state of emergency and appeals for help have brought planes and firefighters from abroad.

A team of Cypriot firefighters was making fire break corridors in mountains north of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese, whose 2,700-year-old archaeological complex narrowly escaped the flames on Sunday.

The fire has receded, there is no wind in the area and we have the water bombers overhead, but we have to be vigilant, said Marcos Strangoulas, a fire chief from Cyprus, directing a team of 52 firefighters.

I'm on a high mountain and there are oak trees all around. Lets hope they stay that way, Strangoulas said.

More News from IBT MEDIA