July 25, 2008 / 3:49 PM / in 11 years

UPDATE 1-Rhodes burns as report slams Greek handling of fires

(Recasts with forest fires)

By Daniel Flynn

ATHENS, July 25 (Reuters) - Greek firefighters and soldiers backed by aircraft from other European countries fought a four-day-old forest fire on the holiday island of Rhodes on Friday but bad weather was hampering their efforts.

It was the latest of more than 100 wildfires to grip Greece so far this summer and erupted as an ombudsman’s report criticised the conservative government for not doing enough to prevent a repeat of a 10-day inferno last year which killed 65 people and plunged the country into a state of emergency.

More than 100 volunteer firefighters from mainland Greece joined soldiers and civil protection units to fight the blaze, which has engulfed more than 1,500 hectares of forest on the popular tourist island off the Aegean coast of Turkey, police and fire officials in Athens said.

Two French aircraft joined two Italian planes and a Cypriot helicopter already braving high winds to dump water on the fire.

“Things are difficult. Weather conditions are unfavourable,” Ioannis Maherdis, prefect of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, told Reuters. “If planes can operate, we can contain it.”

As residents and tourists looked on, a total of 10 planes and seven helicopters crossed columns of black smoke to drop sea water on the flames while 34 fire trucks worked on the ground.

On the mainland, smoke from fires in the Peloponnese shut the national highway from Athens to Patras and stranded two passenger trains, police said.

SCATHING REPORT

A government ombudsman’s report found the public power company’s ageing, ill-maintained network was to blame for starting many blazes.

The government had not made good on promises to compensate victims or taken measures to stop a new disaster, it said.

“The lesson of last year’s tragic experience does not seem to have been fully learned,” it said. “The main measures for fire protection are not being properly implemented.”

The inquiry said fire breaks cut into the forest had become overgrown due to lack of funds. Fire officials complained they still had not been given the manpower to control the blazes.

Greece’s New Democracy government set up a special fund to compensate victims of the fires on the eve of parliamentary elections in September, which it won by a narrow two-seat majority in the 300-member parliament.

The ombudsman’s report said it had received a number of complaints that bureaucracy was delaying payments.

It cited the example of Kremasto, where villagers had not received payment for their burned homes and were forced to live in shipping containers during the winter.

Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Vassilis Triandafyllou; editing by Robert Hart

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