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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Forest fire grips Athens suburbs
A fireman gestures as his colleague sprays water over flames
Hundreds of firefighters and volunteers are tackling the blaze
A forest fire intensified by fierce winds has swept across the northern outskirts of the Greek capital, Athens, destroying dozens of homes.

The blaze forced hundreds of people in the affluent suburbs some 20km (12 miles) from the city centre to flee.

At least 10 people were taken to hospital with breathing problems.

Correspondents say that with a general election looming some people believe the fires were started deliberately to make the government look bad.

At a news conference, fire officials said the blaze had started simultaneously at four points in the forest. It quickly spread down Mount Pentelikon.

More than 60 fire engines, 19 planes and helicopters as well as hundreds of firefighters and volunteers were tackling the blaze.

Answering criticism that the emergency response was too slow, authorities said water-dropping planes had been hampered by smoke and winds of more than 80 km/h (50 mph).

'Huge catastrophe'

An emergency fire co-ordinator said the blaze was "not threatening inhabited zones for the time being, but it continues to spread, though fortunately the wind has calmed".

Local residents try to extinguish flames
Some local residents stayed to try and save their property
Residents of the Melisia, Vrilisia and Penteli suburbs watched as 30m (100ft) high flames engulfed their homes. Others fled for fear of being trapped by the fire.

"This is a huge catastrophe," the Melisia mayor, Manolis Grafakos, said.

"There are no words to describe it. A large chunk of the forest is gone, houses have been burned and I do not think we are fully aware of the extent of the damage."

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Athens says this is the worst fire season in Greece in living memory.

Our correspondent says this particular fire is another serious blow to the ecological health of the capital, because the destruction of woodland means there is even less oxygen getting into the very overcrowded city.

In the past the Greek electorate has been comparatively indifferent towards the environment, but the fires have wreaked such havoc that people are demanding action from the politicians now seeking their votes, he says.

Residents fighting the flames

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