Greece's conservative government faced mounting criticism of incompetence on Tuesday as villagers fled fierce forest fires that have killed 63 people. The opposition Socialist PASOK party seized on the fires three weeks before a parliamentary election, pouring scorn on the government's efforts and saying accusations of arson were an excuse for its weakness in responding to the crisis.
KRESTENA, Greece (Reuters) - Greece's conservative government faced mounting criticism of incompetence on Tuesday as villagers fled fierce forest fires that have killed 63 people.
The opposition Socialist PASOK party seized on the fires three weeks before a parliamentary election, pouring scorn on the government's efforts and saying accusations of arson were an excuse for its weakness in responding to the crisis.
"The government has proven tragically incapable of dealing with fires," PASOK leader George Papandreou told reporters. "It could not save people's lives, property and homes ... it's time for Greek people to choose a strong government that can guarantee security, confidence and hope."
Athens dailies also criticized the government with headlines such as "Paralyzed state, outrage at government" and "The elections of wrath".
The government has stuck by its plan to hold an early parliamentary election on September 16. An opinion poll said the ruling conservatives' lead over the socialists had slipped due, in part, to their handling of the crisis.
The poll, conducted by ALCO polling agency on behalf of Alter TV, showed the New Democracy party's lead over PASOK had narrowed to 0.8 from 1.3 percentage points in a previous poll.
Exhausted firefighters, now boosted by foreign help, have been trying to douse the fires for more than four days.
"I had to use 300 litres of wine to try to extinguish the fire around my house," said Georgios Dimopoulos from the village of Makistos in the southerly Peloponnese peninsula, hardest hit by the fires.
"For 17 hours I fought with the blaze. We were left at the mercy of the flames. I could not tell if it was day or night."
As the once picture-perfect Peloponnese and the island of Evia north of Athens burned, the government reacted to accusations it had failed to move fast enough by saying the simultaneous fires could not be a coincidence.
CALL FOR UNITY
"All of us Greeks must stay united ... As in our past, we must prove that we are one soul, one fist in a national crisis," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said, announcing emergency relief measures.
The government offered rewards of up to 1 million euros ($1.4 million) for help in tracking down arsonists and asked a public prosecutor to see if they can be prosecuted as terrorists.
Many local mayors have accused rogue land developers of setting fires to make way for new construction. Three elderly people and two boys have been charged with starting fires.
Overstretched fire brigades said they were battling 25 fire fronts on Tuesday. Greece has declared a nationwide state of emergency and appeals for help have brought planes and firefighters from abroad.
A team of Cypriot firefighters was making fire break corridors in mountains north of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese. The 2,700-year-old archaeological complex narrowly escaped the flames on Sunday.
"The fire has receded, there is no wind in the area and we have the water bombers overhead, but we have to be vigilant," said fire chief Marcos Strangoulas.
"I'm on a high mountain and there are oak trees all around. Let's hope they stay that way," Strangoulas said.