ZACHARO, Greece (Reuters) - Forest fires sweeping Greece have killed 41 people in two days and more are feared dead with some villages still trapped by flames on Saturday in what the government has called a national tragedy.
The fires, which broke out on the southern Peloponnese peninsula on Friday, have expanded to new fronts, fanned by strong winds and soaring temperatures which have also hampered rescue efforts.
“We have 41 people dead so far” in the Peloponnese, said a police official who declined to be named, adding at least four more were feared dead and 40 seriously injured.
Rescuers said they found bodies on the side of the road, in burnt homes and in cars, and a mother still clutching her child. Two French tourists were reported to be among the dead.
Forest fires also broke out near Athens on Saturday, forcing the evacuation of homes and a monastery and closing the motorway linking the capital to the international airport.
“We are deeply saddened about the Peloponnese but this is also devastating,” Angeliki Spanou, a resident in the Holargos suburb of Athens, told Greek television.
A fire department spokesman said two firefighting planes, a helicopter and 20 fire engines were battling the blaze which had advanced to the outskirts of the capital.
Fire brigades on Saturday were fighting 87 forest fires in “western Greece, the Peloponnese, the island of Evia and the Attica (Athens) region”, said fire department spokesman Ioannis Stamoulis.
Worst hit was the Peloponnese, where dozens of villages have been evacuated but several remain cut off by towering flames. The fires stretch some 160 km (100 miles) from the Ionian Sea in the west to Mani in the peninsula’s most southern region.
Politicians interrupted campaigning for national elections on September 16 and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis told reporters “we are living a national tragedy”.
His conservative government has seen its popularity drop after criticism for its slow reaction in dealing with a spate of forest fires that killed 10 people earlier this summer.
“We are fighting many battles under difficult conditions,” Karamanlis said after meeting rescue officials near the front.
Television showed survivors sifting through destroyed cars and walking through burning villages looking for friends and relatives.
“I can hear the flames outside my door. There is no water anywhere, there is no help. We are alone,” a resident from the village of Adritsaina told a Greek TV station by mobile phone.
Authorities said 500 soldiers were sent to help. At least 16 firefighting planes and 9 helicopters were combating the flames but strong winds grounded several others.
Greece declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Lakonia, Messinia and Ilia - where electricity and phones were largely cut off - and called for urgent help from its European Union partners.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he was “saddened by the tragic loss of human lives” and he hoped EU partners would “live up to expectations and provide all the material support Greece needs in this moment of distress”.
The Commission said France was sending two aircraft on Saturday. Germany had offered three helicopters and Norway one aircraft under a joint firefighting program.
Soaring temperatures, hot winds, drought and arson have been blamed for an upsurge in forest fires this summer in Greece and other parts of southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
In Italy, an 83-year-old man died near the southern city of Potenza on Friday, probably trying to put out a fire, and in Bosnia, firefighters and villagers were battling several forest fires fanned by strong winds.
In Portugal, which like Spain has been spared the worst of the fires because of an unusually damp summer, firefighters on Thursday put out a blaze near the historic town of Sintra.
Forest fires in Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya were brought under control on Saturday after killing one man and injuring a villager.
Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and George Hatzidakis in Athens