Thu, Aug 30, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Greek fires affecting political landscape

BOOMERANGE In a political culture full of conspiracy, some speculated that it might be the work of Greece's age-old nemesis Turkey or possibly even a foreign terrorist group

AGENCIES , ATHENS

A woman watches her house as a firefighting helicopter drops water during a fire in the village of Thisoa, in the Peloponnese, about 250km southwest of Athens, Greece, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

The fires that tore omnivorously through scores of villages and olive groves here may now also be changing Greece's political landscape: The government of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, facing national elections next month, came under increasing criticism on Tuesday, not only over its handling of the fires but also over whether it stoked Greeks' fears about who might be to blame.

It is unclear whether the criticism will be enough to alter the outcome of the national elections on Sept. 16. But a new national poll showed the gap narrowing to less than 1 percent between Karamanlis' New Democracy party and the socialist opposition party, Pasok.

The opposition leader, George Papandreou, is seizing on the anger, in an effort to sway the many undecided voters in a close race.

"Unfortunately, the government has proven ineffective," he told reporters on Tuesday. "It continues to act irresponsibly. It is busy fabricating conspiracy terror theories. The result: Greeks are being ridiculed abroad."

He added, "Our nation cannot tolerate a government propped up on fear."

In Evia, the island to the north of Athens, four planes and a helicopter were being used to extinguish the flames.

More than 30 fires were blazing across the country, but a drop in the high winds which have fanned the flames was helping firefighters.

More than 2,000 soldiers and at least 800 firefighters were being assisted by aircraft from more than a dozen countries.

The death toll now stands at 64 since Friday.

"The picture we have today gives us some relative optimism," Nikolaos Diamantis, a fire service spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. "We hope there's nothing unexpected which will change our operational planning or cause problems. We believe we will have good results."

On Saturday, as the death toll rose and Greek television broadcast live interviews with people trapped by fires -- and with no immediate help -- Karamanlis declared a national state of emergency. He also stated that he believed arson was the cause, saying that it "cannot be a coincidence" that so many fires started at the same time.

Then his public order minister, Vyron Polydoras, said Greece faced an "asymetrical threat" -- a term that usually refers to small terrorist groups attacking a far larger target.

Past forest fires have indeed been set by arsonists, often property owners wanting to develop land set aside as forest. And without doubt, New Democracy's suggestions dovetailed with conspiracy theories mouthed by many Greeks, in a political culture full of conspiracy.

Some speculated that it might be the work of Greece's age-old nemesis Turkey or a home-grown, or possibly even foreign, terrorist group. One man in the hard-hit western Peloponnesian peninsula even suggested that it was a conspiracy between the government and makers of particle board for cheap wood.

HELP FROM NATURE

Meanwhile, improved weather conditions yesterday helped thousands of firefighters, including hundreds from neighboring countries, bring under control dozens of fires.

Hundreds of people who lost homes, property, farms and livestock crowded into banks in southern Greece to receive up to 13,000 euros (US$18,000) in aid promised immediately by the government.

The fire department said at least two fires were burning out of control near the northern border with Albania, while on the hard-struck island of Evia, north of Athens, all fires were under control.

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