63 Dead,Thousands Homeless, Greek Forest Fires Surround Villages
KRESTENA, Greece (Reuters) - Desperate Greek villages encircled by flames appealed for help on Monday as strong winds continued to fan forest fires sweeping through the country, killing 63 people in three days.
People sought refuge by river banks as towering flames engulfed homes, farms and forests and firefighters battled scores of blazes across the country, which has declared a nationwide emergency.
"The fire is just outside our village. Absolutely nothing has been done. We are on our own," a desperate resident of Frixa village in the hardest hit southern Peloponnese region told Antenna TV.
"A lot of people have gone down to the river. For God's sake, something must be done so no more people die."
A woman from the village of Porthyo made another frantic appeal. "The village is surrounded and we are trapped. Please help. I have invalids in the house and I can't move them."
The worst forest fires in decades have cut a swathe of destruction across Greece from the southern tip of the Peloponnese to the northern town of Ioannina, razing hundreds of villages and almost destroying the ancient site of Olympia.
The four-day inferno has left thousands homeless and 63 people have been killed, with more feared dead, trapped in villages cut off by flames, the fire brigade said.
The government, facing snap elections on September 16, offered rewards of up to a million euros ($1.4 million) on Sunday for help in tracking down arsonists who it suggests have played a major role in the fires.
Many local mayors have accused rogue land developers of setting fires to make way for new construction on virgin forest and farm land. So far, police have arrested two elderly people and two boys on suspicion of starting fires.
SKY BLACK WITH SMOKE
Thinly stretched fire brigades, aided by planes from EU countries, soldiers and local volunteers were trying to stop a large fire front from reaching the Peloponnese town of Krestena, with a population of 5,000.
"There are 10 fire engines and one helicopter at the edge of the town trying to stop the fire from coming through," Reuters cameraman Vassilis Triandafyllou said. "The sky is black with smoke, you can hardly see anything."
On Sunday, firefighters managed to save the nearby temples and stadiums of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, as flames licked the walls of the site's museum.
But the blaze continued to ravage neighboring villages on Monday and thousands of people have fled, seeking temporary refuge in schools, hotels and regional health centers.
"There are strong winds in the area and all villages there have a big problem," a fire department spokesman said.
The fires covered Athens in white ash that swirled around the temples of the Acropolis. The smell of smoke permeated the city and flags flew at half mast in a three-day mourning.
Greek opposition parties attacked Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's government for incompetence and Athens newspapers ran front page headlines reading: "Incompetent! Grief for the dead, Rage for the absence of State" and "Shame for the collapse of the state".
Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, Greece has sought help from its EU partners. Planes from France, Spain and Italy are already participating in operations while firefighters from Cyprus, France and Israel have rushed to the aid of their Greek colleagues. Help from another 10 countries was expected on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Athens)