Greeks besiege banks for wildfire compensation

 @ibtimes
on August 30 2007 11:43 AM

Thousands of Greeks besieged banks on Thursday, clamoring for state compensation for damage caused by the country's worst wildfires which burned on in some areas one week into the crisis.

Anyone can get an instant 3,000 euros ($4,000) from banks in affected areas by showing identification and signing a form -- a simple procedure which the government says shows it reacting quickly to the fires that have killed 63 people.

Less than three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections, critics who slammed the centre-right government's initial inability to prevent or extinguish the fires said its compensation system was open to widespread fraud.

Who are all these people? I don't recognize a single one of them and I have lived here all my life, said Ourania Fotopoulou as at least 400 people lined up outside the a bank in Pyrgos, a provincial capital in the stricken Peloponnese peninsula.

Many people in the queues spoke with accents from outside the region and some admitted they had come from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki, which is some 600 km (370 miles) north.

Hundreds of gypsies have come here who don't live here, said Gerasimos Halilopoulos, a gypsy from Pyrgos, told Reuters. It is making my life difficult because I need the money.

A government spokesman said the forms would be checked later and that fraudsters would be punished. On Wednesday alone, banks handed over more than 24 million euros ($33 million) of aid.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the simplified system was the right thing. The order is 'move fast', without any delay. We're removing bureaucratic hurdles. Nothing should stand in the way of us doing our duty, he told a news briefing.

BODIES CARBONISED

The government's handling of the crisis could be crucial for Karamanlis's hopes for re-election on September 16. Centre-right daily Kathimerini said he needed to recover from an initial impotence in the face of the fires.

The first round, that is the fight against the fires, was lost because of the poor performance of the state apparatus. The second round, that of reconstruction, has only just begun. It will be an uphill struggle within a tight timeframe, it said.

A cartoon in the newspaper showed a helicopter flying over scorched countryside dropping banknotes from a water bucket while the pilot says: Yes prime minister, as agreed, we're dropping 100-euro bills so the land will turn green again.

Vast swathes of countryside have burned and more than 500 homes were razed in what have been Europe's most extensive wildfires in a decade, according to the European Space Agency.

Of the 63 dead, 38 bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified by DNA testing.

On Thursday some fires raged on, one in the western Peloponnese, another on the island of Evia, north of Athens.

The fires will cost Greece at least 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) a government minister told Reuters, and Athens plans to tap European Union emergency aid.

Private citizens have already donated 38 million euros to a disaster relief fund, cash that the media has said is at risk of being siphoned off by fraudsters.

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