From: George Hatzidakis and Tatiana Frangou, Reuters
Published August 24, 2007 06:58 PM

Worst Forest Fires In Decade, 16 Dead, Greece Asks EU For Help

ATHENS - The worst forest fires to hit Greece in decades killed at least 16 people on Friday, including two French tourists, and Athens asked the European Union for urgent help.


Six people including two firefighters and two French tourists died in a blaze near the town of Areopolis, on the southerly Peloponnese peninsula, where multiple fire fronts fanned by strong winds burned farms, homes and forests.


Ten more people were found dead near Zakharo, on the west coast of the peninsula, at least six of them in cars, a fire brigade official said.


"I can see our houses burning. We're searching for people who might be trapped in their homes but there are no firefighters here, we need help," a local resident told Greek television. "We have no hope, they've abandoned us to God."


The fires have spread eastward from the western Peloponnese to the southern tip of the peninsula near Areopolis, some 190 km (120 miles) southwest of Athens.


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Dozens of villages were evacuated and ambulances took several people to nearby hospitals with burns and breathing problems.


"The situation is extremely dire," the mayor of Zakharo, Pantazis Chronopoulos, told reporters. "The speed with which this fire has been spreading is astonishing."


The government announced a state of emergency in Lakonia and Messinia provinces and sent an appeal for help from the EU.


"The message has been sent and we await the responses," Acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said.


This summer, Greece has seen some of its worst fires in a decade, caused by high temperatures, drought and arsonists.


A total of 170 fires broke out on Thursday and Friday alone as winds picked up after a three-day heatwave that saw temperatures rise to 41 Celsius (106 F).


"My village has been destroyed, it's all gone, and the politicians only care about our votes," a local from a village near Zakharo told television.


Greeks go to the polls on September 16. The government's popularity has fallen as the public have blamed it for failures to stop the fires, which have reached the outskirts of Athens and destroyed much of the nearby Mount Parnitha nature reserve in the past two months.


Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was heading to the disaster areas, as were several political leaders.


"We are observing tonight, with indignation and deep sadness, the images of a catastrophe of biblical proportions," said George Papandreou, leader of the opposition party PASOK.


Greece's weather service said the winds were expected to weaken late in the evening.


(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou, Daphne Papadopoulou and Karolos Grohmann)


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