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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Wildfires rage on across Greece
Firemen battle a blaze near the village of Andritsena on the Peloponnese peninsula, 27 August 2007
At least 63 people have died in the fires so far

Firefighting teams from across Europe are continuing to battle forest fires raging across southern Greece, which have claimed at least 63 lives.

Several EU countries have sent their own firefighters, backed by planes and helicopters, to help tackle the blazes.

Some 27 villages have been entirely abandoned and many parts of the Peloponnese peninsula are still ablaze.

The Greek opposition has attacked the government's response to the crisis, calling it "totally incompetent".

The EU help is said to be the union's largest offer of emergency assistance to a member state.

Greece battles against devastating forest fires

Rescuers have evacuated villages in the Peloponnese as the fires threatened to engulf them, but there have been no fatalities since Monday, reports say.

"The fires are still out of control. At the moment there is no threat to the villages, but the direction of the wind is impossible to predict," a fire service spokesman told the AFP news agency.

On Monday, terrified residents in Frixa in the western Peloponnese were airlifted to safety by helicopters after being cut off by fire and thick black smoke.

Isolated villages have been cut off in the region, sparking fears that the death toll could rise further.

The government declared a state of emergency over the weekend as new fires, fanned by hot, gusting winds, continued to break out around Greece.

From heaven to hell

The village of Artamitha in the Peloponnese has become known as the "crematorium", says the BBC's Malcolm Brabant who is in the village near the town of Olympia.

Burnt-out wrecks of cars are testament to local people's bid to escape the flames "in a convoy of death".

Just across the road is a fire engine lying on its side, in which three firemen were killed.

I've been coming here for the last 15 years on holiday with my children. It was a paradise here and now it is hell
Fire survivor

The ground is charred and the surrounding countryside looks as though a bomb has been dropped on the area, our correspondent adds. No birdsong can be heard.

"I've been coming here for the last 15 years on holiday with my children. It was a paradise here and now it is hell," one woman who escaped the blaze told the BBC.

"The fire travelled faster than us when we tried to escape. In 10 minutes, the fires were all over the village."

In one car, a woman and her four children were burnt alive as they tried to flee the blaze. If she had stayed at home, she would have survived as her house was untouched by fire.

"She was my best friend, she was trying to escape with her children but the fires cut them off," one woman who knew her told the BBC.

"We raised our children together. My little girl Ara asked me today 'why isn't Constandinos with us to play?'. And I told her that they are near God now, in heaven."

Political fallout

Correspondents say the fires are likely to dominate political debate ahead of a general election on 16 September.

The PM said the poll would proceed as planned, but his priority was the victims, not political point-scoring.

The people here are angry, frustrated and sad
Jona Desselberger
BBC News website reader, in Athens

"We are continuing a determined struggle against the fires," Costas Karamanlis said.

In Athens, hundreds of people took to the streets in protest.

Some of the demonstrators said they believed the fires were deliberately started by property developers in order to clear the land for development.

However, the president of the Hellenic Property Federation, Stratos Paradias, told the BBC that the suspicions were unfounded.

"That's absolutely nonsense, this allegation, because if there is a company which wants to get its hands on some piece of land, to burn this land is the worst way to do it.

"Once a forest is burnt, according to our constitution, within three months the Forestry Service is obliged to pass a decree according to which this land is reforested."

Meanwhile, seven people have been charged with arson and a further 26 face lesser charges linked to the fires that have blighted Greece since July.

Anti-terrorist squads are involved in the investigation, and a 1m euro (678,000) reward has been offered to help catch those responsible.


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