From: PETROS GIANAKOURIS -Associated Press
Published August 25, 2007 08:57 AM

Forest Fires Kill 37 in Southern Greece

ZAHARO, Greece (AP) -- Massive forest fires swept uncontrolled across Greece for a second day Saturday and killed at least 37 people in the south of the country, including several children, the fire department said.


Arson was suspected in several of the more than 170 fires that have blazed since Friday morning. At least 25 of the fires ignited after dark, not close to any of the fires that were already burning, said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. Police and firefighting investigators were heading to the areas.


Earlier, 27 people had been confirmed dead across the Peloponnese, with at least 20 near Zaharo. Firefighters searching through charred houses in the region after daybreak found 10 more bodies in the village of Makistos, the department said. They were believed to include a mother and her four children reported missing during the night, it said.


Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis - who last week called early general elections for mid-September - was to chair an emergency meeting of senior ministers in Athens.


"This is a day of national mourning," Karamanlis said after visiting burned areas. "I wish to express my deep grief over the lost lives ... We are fighting against heavy odds, on many fronts and under particularly tough conditions."


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New fires broke out Saturday and there were fears that the death toll could increase as rescue crews reached the afflicted villages. A new blaze broke out in a forest on the eastern fringes of Athens on Saturday, sending clouds of smoke billowing over the city.


The most devastating fire was in the Zaharo area, where nine of those killed - including the three firefighters - died after a car crashed into a fire truck and led to a pile up as panicky residents tried to flee the area.


At dawn, the smoldering remains of the fire truck could be seen overturned in a gully off the pavement, and the charred wreckage of cars and a motorbike lay strewn across the road.


Scores of firemen and hundreds of soldiers battled the blazes, but in many cases their efforts were overwhelmed by choking smoke and heat from the towering flames.


Water-dropping helicopters and airplanes were redeployed to battle the fires, but some were hampered for a second day by strong winds.


A fire on the island of Evia north of the capital grew through the night, and the authorities declared a state of emergency in the area, said Sofia Moutsou, the mayor of the town of Styra. At least three villages were evacuated, the fire department's Diamandis said.


"If we don't stop this now there will be nothing left," said Moutsou early Saturday. She was hoping ferries could transport fire trucks to the island to help tackle the blaze.


The government on Friday appealed to European Union countries to "send any help they can," acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said after an emergency meeting of Greece's civil protection authority.


Greece has suffered its worst summer for forest fires this year, with hundreds of blazes burning thousands of hectares of forest and brushland.


With early elections just three weeks away, the devastating fires are certain to become a political issue. Karamanlis' government has already come under criticism for its response to previous fires that ravaged Greece earlier this summer. Ten people, including five firefighters, had died in those earlier fires.


A recent three-day heat wave, in which temperatures have hit 104 degrees, has left forests and scrubland parched, and the flames have been fanned by strong winds across Greece.


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Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.


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