ATHENS - Fire-fighters were beating back wildfires on Monday that have swept through homes and huge swathes of forest near Athens for three days, forcing thousands to flee.

A dozen Greek, Italian and French fire-fighting planes tried to douse flames fanned by strong early morning winds. The operation was testing state resources, as well as a conservative government facing the threat of an early election by March.

The fire is still raging but not with the intensity of previous days, said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis. Fire-fighters are making every effort to contain its front.

Only three main fronts remained in east Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday, burning mainly forest and threatening fewer communities.

Air forces are operating since early morning and we hope the fire front will be controlled within the day, said Iordanis Louizos, mayor of Nea Makri, a town near the fires' frontline.

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late on Sunday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge thousands to leave their communities, but strong winds were creating flare-ups.

While thousands abandoned what are mainly holiday homes around Athens, many frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames reaching their properties.

The handling of the fire, the biggest since Greece's worst wildfires in living memory killed 65 people over 10 days in 2007, will be crucial to Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

His government is clinging to a one-seat majority and the socialist opposition, ahead in opinion polls, has made clear it will use a March parliamentary vote, when a new president will be chosen, to force a snap election.


Opposition parties said fire-fighting efforts could have been better coordinated. The Communist KKE party urged the government to hire more planes.

What matters is to cover the huge shortcomings in the fire-fighting infrastructure, KKE leader Aleka Papariga said.

The flames damaged scores of homes and seared about 37,000 acres of forest, farm fields and olive groves.

A public prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether arson was behind the blaze in an area where fires had in the past been started by greedy developers.

Amid weather service warnings of strong winds until Monday evening, help from Greece's European Union allies arrived. Two Italian and one French aircraft, as well as a helicopter and about 40 fire-fighters from Cyprus joined the battle.

Four helicopters, 187 fire engines and about 430 fire-fighters also fought the blaze, fire officials said. Some 300 soldiers were also dispatched.
The fire broke out late on Friday in the village of Grammatiko about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the Greek capital and quickly spread to neighboring villages. A children's hospital, a home for the elderly and a monastery were evacuated.

Summer fires are frequent in Greece, often caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson. Hundreds of fires across southern Europe in July destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and gutted dozens of homes.