ZACHARO, Greece - The Greek government declared a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday after raging forest fires killed at least 46 people and trapped many more in villages surrounded by flames. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the rash of forest fires "can't be a coincidence". He vowed the culprits, an apparent reference to arsonists, would be found and punished.
ZACHARO, Greece - The Greek government declared a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday after raging forest fires killed at least 46 people and trapped many more in villages surrounded by flames.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the rash of forest fires "can't be a coincidence". He vowed the culprits, an apparent reference to arsonists, would be found and punished.
"All regions of the country are declared in a state of emergency in order to mobilize all means and forces to face this disaster," he said in a televised address to the nation.
The worst fires in Greece in decades broke out on Friday on the southern Peloponnese peninsula and have spread to new fronts, fanned by strong winds and soaring temperatures which have hampered rescue efforts.
Forest fires also broke out near Athens on Saturday, forcing the evacuation of homes and a monastery and closing the motorway linking the capital to the main airport for several hours.
Thick smoke darkened the sky above Athens and ashes fell on city centre streets as the blaze advanced to the outskirts before it was brought under control.
"Help, we need help. We have children and elderly who need assistance. The fire is 50 meters (yards) away from us," a resident from the village of Styra on the island of Evia told Greek TV by phone.
The fire department said the death toll had risen to 46, including several children, but more are feared dead as many villages remain cut off by towering walls of flame.
Rescuers said they had found bodies on the side of the road, in burnt homes and in cars, including a mother still clutching her children.
"I feel deep pain for the dead, for the mother who perished in the flames, with her children in her arms," said Karamanlis, who faces a parliamentary election on September 16.
FIRES THROUGHOUT GREECE
Fire brigades said there were 87 forest fires around the country, in "western Greece, the Peloponnese, the island of Evia and the Attica (Athens) region", fire department spokesman Ioannis Stamoulis said.
Soaring temperatures, hot winds, drought and arson have been blamed for the unusual number of fires this summer.
Worst hit this time was the Peloponnese, where dozens of villages have been evacuated while others remain cut off by flames. The fires stretch 160 km (100 miles) from the Ionian Sea in the west to Mani in the south of the peninsula.
"I've lost everything, everyone has abandoned us," a resident from the village of Alivery told Greek television. "I barely escaped barefoot, everything I own is gone, destroyed."
Politicians interrupted their election campaigning, flags were ordered to fly at half mast in mourning and Karamanlis said the nation was undergoing an "indescribable national tragedy."
His conservative government has seen its popularity drop after criticism of its slow reaction to a spate of forest fires earlier this summer that killed 10 people.
On Saturday, he announced special financial relief measures for the afflicted areas, while the socialist opposition PASOK party said it was offering 30 percent of its election campaign budget to the victims.
President Karolos Papoulias, touring smouldering areas of the Peloponnese, said: "I feel as if I had lost members of my own family."
Television showed survivors sifting through burntout cars and walking through burning villages looking for friends and relatives. Thousands of acres of forest and olive groves were on fire and flames were engulfing homes, hotels and businesses.
Greece called earlier for help from its European Union partners. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he hoped Greece's EU partners would help it "in this moment of distress".
Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyanni said France was sending 4 Canadair planes, due on Saturday, and 60 firefighters. Germany has offered three helicopters and Norway one plane under a joint European firefighting program.
(Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and George Hatzidakis in Athens)
Â© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.