Tue, Aug 28, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Greece charges seven with arson over forest fires

AFP AND AP , ATHENS AND CHRISAFA, GREECE

The winged statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, stands in front of smoke from fires in the village of ancient Olympia near the birthplace of the Olympic Games, in southwestern Greece, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Greece battled raging forest fires for a fourth day yesterday and charged seven people with arson over blazes that have claimed more than 60 lives and threatened some of Europe's most historic sites.

The country was on a disaster footing as more than 30 fires devastated forests in the south and west of the Peloponnese, the peninsula to the south of Athens which has been hit the hardest.

Flames shot into the sky in the western Peloponnese as helicopters and planes dropped thousands of liters of water on the blazing trees.

In areas already ravaged by the fires, a thick carpet of ash lay among blackened trees stripped bare by the flames.

Firefighters were surrounding the site of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, after succeeding on Sunday in preventing the flames from devastating one of Greece's most historic treasures.

Authorities feared that strong winds would force the flames back toward the site.

Fires also broke out near Athens yesterday, forcing residents to flee their homes but the blaze on a mountain north of the capital was soon brought under control.

A spokesman for firefighters said seven people had been charged with starting fires and anti-terrorist prosecutor Dimitris Papagelopoulos said he was opening a preliminary investigation into the cause.

Both announcements fueled mounting speculation that the fires were started by criminal gangs.

"The fact that so many fires have broken out in so many areas at once is perhaps not a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said at the weekend.

Greece goes to the polls for a general election in just three weeks' time that Karamanlis is favored to win.

Construction is one of Greece's main industries, and some observers believe that developers are hoping to move in on the areas where forest has been destroyed.

The government has insisted however that trees will be re-planted, partly to prevent illegal construction.

Papangelopoulos yesterday ordered an investigation to determine "whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests carried out in the country during the summer of 2007" could come under Greece's anti-terrorism law, the public order ministry said in a statement.

The investigation will also seek to establish the identities of those responsible, the statement said.

Treating arson as a potential act of terrorism would give authorities broader powers of investigation and arrest.

The ministry has announced rewards of between 100,000 euros (US$136,000) and 1 million euros for information leading to the arrest of arsonists.

At least 63 people have died, including 59 in the Peloponnese alone, in what authorities have called "a national catastrophe without precedent."

"The death toll so far is 63 after two bodies were found in the village of Agnanta in the Peloponnese," health ministry official Panios Efstathiou said.

More than 800 Greek firefighters and 800 soldiers were battling the flames in the Peloponnese, assisted by a growing international effort, with 20 planes and 19 helicopters dropping water on the flames.

France sent four water-bombing Canadair planes and two came from Italy.

A team of French firefighters arrived to fight a raging blaze in the southeast of the Peloponnese.

"We have a big job ahead of us. The fire has already burned 20,000 hectares," said Captain Philippe Risser, who was leading the 62-man team.

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