August 24, 2009 / 10:25 AM / 9 years ago

Flames near Athens recede after 3-day inferno

* Fire-fighters say main blaze has subsided

* Risk of flare-ups still high

* Government criticised for fire handling

(Updates with fresh quotes, number of houses damaged)

By Renee Maltezou and Dina Kyriakidou

ATHENS, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Helped by a lull in winds, fire fighters on Monday beat back wildfires that swept through suburbs of Athens and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

The government, however, faced criticism over its handling of the crisis which could hurt its prospects in an expected snap election later this year.

A dozen Greek, Italian and French fire-fighting planes battled flames that destroyed homes and swathes of forest near the Greek capital and weather officials said winds were expected to die down as of Monday evening.

"The picture is better in east Attica, there are no significant active fronts but the risk of flare-ups remains," fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis said.

Authorities said about 150 houses were damaged by the fires, still smouldering in east Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday. Efforts were now focused on blazes on the island of Evia and near the west Attica town of Porto Germeno.

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late on Sunday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge thousands to leave their communities. A children’s hospital, a home for the elderly and a monastery were evacuated.

While thousands abandoned what are mainly holiday homes around Athens, many frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames reaching their properties.

The battle against the fire, the biggest since Greece’s worst wildfires in living memory killed 65 people in 2007, will be crucial to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who had been mulling a reshuffle before an early election this autumn.

"The fire has put a stop to a possible reshuffle this week," the pro-government Apogevmatini daily said.

Karamanlis’s government is clinging to a one-seat majority and the socialist opposition, ahead in opinion polls, has made clear it will force a snap poll and use a March parliamentary vote, when a new president will be chosen, to achieve that.


The press and opposition parties attacked the government’s handling of the fire. The Communist KKE party urged the government to hire more planes and the far-right LAOS said there were delays and lack of coordination.

"Disorganisation, indifference, criminal negligence gave the final blow to Attica," said the liberal daily Eleftherotypia on its front page, echoing many other Greek media.

The government defended its handling of the fire, blaming extremely strong winds for its destructive path. The flames seared about 37,000 acres (15,200 hectares) of forest, farm fields and olive groves.

"The forest fires near Athens are causing an environmental disaster," European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said. "They must be brought under control as soon as possible."

A public prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether arson started the blaze in an area where fires had in the past been set by greedy developers.

Two Italian and one French aircraft, as well as a helicopter and about 40 fire-fighters from Cyprus joined the battle. Four helicopters, 187 fire engines and about 430 fire-fighters also fought the blaze, aided by about 300 soldiers.

The fire broke out late on Friday in the village of Grammatiko about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Athems and quickly spread to neighbouring villages.

Summer fires are frequent in Greece, often caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson. Hundreds of fires across southern Europe in July destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and gutted dozens of homes.

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