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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 August 2007, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
Fight to save Olympic birthplace
Hill of Kronos burning
The hill of Kronos, overlooking Olympia, was engulfed by fire
Forest fires are burning inside ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, but firefighters have kept the site safe, Greek officials say.

Flames licked the edges of the original Olympic stadium and scorched the yard of the museum, home to one of Greece's greatest archaeological collections.

Fires have ravaged large parts of Greece, affecting the Peloponnese, areas around Athens and Evia island.

On Sunday five bodies were found on Evia, bringing the death toll to 56.

Five fire engines are protecting the archaeological museum, which houses sculptures from the Temple of Zeus and artefacts from the ancient Olympics, and anti-fire systems have been switched on, according to the secretary general of the culture ministry, Christos Zahopoulos.

A new fire protection and sprinkler system was installed at the Unesco World Heritage site for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Culture Minister George Voulgarakis has arrived in Olympia to oversee the emergency effort.

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem," he told Associated Press news agency as he visited the area.

A fire brigade spokesman said that six planes, two helicopters, 15 fire engines and 45 firemen had participated in the effort to protect the site.

However, villages and woodlands in the surrounding area were not so fortunate. The BBC's Malcolm Brabrant in the nearby village of Pelopi says that village after village succumbed to the flames and people began to flee for their lives.

An ancient Greek religious site dating back 10 centuries before Christ
Home of the ancient Olympics, first held in 8th Century BC
Was location of giant ivory and gold Statue of Zeus, one of seven wonders of the world
Olympics continued until banned by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 394 AD
Place where Olympic flame is still lit

At one stage, the flames were racing at more than a mile every few minutes, our correspondent said.

One local villager, speaking to Greek television by telephone, told of the battle to save homes:

"We have no water, we are at God's mercy," they said. "Please tell someone we are putting out the fire with our own hands, we have no help. The village will disappear from the map."

Angela Katsiki, a resident of the village of Kolliri, near to Olympia, told the BBC that she was devastated about the damage the fire had caused to the surrounding area.

"Horrified, absolutely... sad, really really sad. This is the worse I've seen - I've seen other fires here, but this is the worse. It's completely destroyed the area."

Sun obscured

The rapidly advancing fires caught many people unawares. Those who left the decision to flee too late were caught in their houses, cars, or as they stumbled through olive groves.

On Sunday, officials announced that five more people had been killed by fires in Evia, an island north of the capital Athens.

Towns on the island of Evia were being evacuated on Sunday, with ferries carrying people to the mainland near Athens.

"The fire is racing towards the town," a resident of the island town of Aliveri told Greek TV.

This is complete hell. The front is 30km long and has now reached the first houses
Petros Filippou
Mayor of Kalyvia, Athens

"We are leaving or else we will burn to death. There is no one to help us," he said.

Meanwhile Athens itself was shrouded in smoke that obscured the sun as several fires threatened the city's outskirts.

Houses and industrial buildings in the suburbs of Keratea and Kalyvia were destroyed.

"This is complete hell," said Kalyvia mayor Petros Filippou.

"The front is 30km (19 miles) long and has now reached the first houses. That's it."

At least 39 people were reported to have been killed in the worst affected region, around the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, by a fire that broke out on Friday and quickly spread. Another four bodies were discovered in the central Peloponnese region of Arcadia.

International effort

The Greek PM has implied that many fires were started deliberately.

In a nationally televised address, Costas Karamanlis said: "So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence.

Nasa picture of fires on Greece
The Greek fires are seen from space in this Nasa picture
"The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

A 65-year-old man has been charged with arson and murder relating to a fire which killed six people in Areopolis, in the far south of Greece.

Two youths were also detained on suspicion of arson in the northern city of Kavala.

Mr Karamanlis has declared a nationwide state of emergency and said the country had to "mobilise all means and forces to face this disaster".

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

"This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Emergency workers and fire-fighting planes from other European Union countries have joined the battle against the fires, and more help is expected from countries outside the bloc.

"Thirty-one planes and helicopters from various European countries and from Israel will be sent. We also have an offer of assistance from the American and Russian governments with whom I communicated yesterday evening," Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Dora Bakoyannis said.


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