The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Thousands flee walls of fire in Greece

Krestena (Greece), Aug. 27 (Reuters): Thousands of Greeks threatened by towering walls of fire fled their homes today as strong winds fanned blazes that have devastated the country and killed 63 people in four days.

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

Greece’s worst fires in decades showed no sign of abating, with dozens raging unchecked from the southern Peloponnese to Athens and the northern town of Ioannina.

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.

In a battle to save Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games in the Peloponnese peninsula, firefighters managed to beat back fires menacing the ancient stadiums and temples yesterday.

The government, facing snap elections on September 16, has offered rewards of up to a million euros for help in tracking down arsonists who it believes played a major role in 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.

With many venting their fury at a perceived lack of co-ordination by Greek authorities, desperate Greeks trapped by the flames turned to television networks for help, with their frantic appeals 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. Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, Greece has declared a nationwide emergency and sought help from its EU partners.

Thinly stretched fire brigades, aided by planes from EU countries, soldiers and local volunteers, fought to stop fire reaching towns and villages. Thousands of people have fled, seeking temporary refuge in schools, hotels and regional health centres.

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 in a three-day mourning.

Greek Opposition parties attacked Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s government for incompetence and Athens newspapers had front page headlines reading: “Incompetent! Grief for the dead, Rage for the absence of State” and “Shame for the collapse of the state”. Greek appeals for aid have brought planes from France, Spain and Italy.

Firefighters from Cyprus, France and Israel have been rushed in.

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