[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Languages
Last Updated: Saturday, 25 August 2007, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Death toll mounts in Greek fires
People run from fires in southern Greece
The speed with which the fire spread caught many people unawares
Greek emergency workers continue to find the charred bodies of people burned to death by forest fires that are raging in the south of the country.

Officials raised the death toll from the fires over the past two days to 46.

Searches of burnt cars, houses and fields were still turning up the remains of those who could not escape.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis called the situation "an unspeakable tragedy". The government appealed for EU help and later declared a state of emergency.

Greek newspapers are calling the southern Peloponnese region a "crematorium", says the BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

The fires have been moving so fast that people have been cut off before they could escape. With emergency services overstretched, desperate residents and local officials called television and radio stations to appeal for help.

We are living through an unspeakable tragedy today
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis

Some of the worst fires are concentrated along an 80km (50 mile) stretch on the west coast of the Peloponnese to Mani in the very south of the peninsula. But others are burning across the country.

  • Two new fires broke out near Athens, forcing a road between the city and its airport to be closed
  • A monastery and homes were evacuated as flames closed in on the capital
  • Arson was suspected in several cases, with 20 new fires starting during the night, a fire department spokesman said
  • All top football matches were postponed on the opening weekend of the season
  • France responded to Greece's appeal for help, sending two water-dropping planes, which were scheduled to arrive on Saturday afternoon, AFP reported

Family found

At least nine people are reported to have burnt to death in their cars as they attempted to flee the flames near the town of Zaharo, west of the Peloponnese.

The Associated Press reported that a car had crashed into a fire engine, causing a traffic jam from which people could not escape as the flames advanced.

Zaharo seemed to be the centre of the disaster. Fire crews said they had found at least 30 bodies in villages near the town, as they searched burned out cars and houses.

map

"It's a tragedy," an eyewitness told Greek television. "I can see the burnt bodies of a mother holding her child in her arms. Further away there are more bodies. It's terrible."

Fire officials confirmed that a mother and her four children had perished, as had three firefighters.

A local prefect close to the scene described it as horrific.

"The situation is extremely dire... The speed with which this fire has been spreading is astonishing," said the mayor of Zaharo, Pantazis Chronopoulos.

Six deaths were confirmed in the seaside town of Areopolis in the Mani region of Greece's deep south. Hotels and several villages have been evacuated, fire officials said.

'Incredible efforts'

But hot, dry winds were expected to continue through Saturday, gusting up to gale force and fanning the flames.

The winds hampered the use of fire-fighting planes, though some helicopters have managed to take flight.

Fire consumes hillside forests in Taygetos, southern Peloponnese, Greece
Fires have consumed hillsides in Taygetos, in southern Greece

"The helicopters are operating whenever the weather conditions permit... The pilots are making incredible efforts," fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

The overstretched fire services are being helped by the military, but our correspondent says troops do not seem trained or equipped for the task, and are no match for the intense flames.

A hot, dry summer, with temperatures recently touching 40C (104F) has left much of the country vulnerable. On the island of Evia, north of the capital, three villages were evacuated as a fire approached.

"If we don't stop this now there will be nothing left," said Sofia Moutsou, mayor of the town of Styra.

Friday and Saturday have been the deadliest days of a terrible summer spent battling forest fires, transforming what had previously been seen as predominantly an ecological disaster into a human one, our correspondent says.

There has been widespread public anger at the government's response, which many have criticised as inadequate and slow.

Prime Minister Karamanlis visited Zaharo late on Friday, and was to chair an emergency meeting in Athens on Saturday.

He is under considerable political pressure, as he faces an early general election in three weeks' time.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Forest fires raging in Greece



SEE ALSO
In pictures: Greek forest fires
25 Aug 07 |  In Pictures
Extreme European heat: Your experiences
25 Jul 07 |  Have Your Say
Europe bakes in summer heatwave
25 Jul 07 |  Europe




FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific