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Helicopter saves villagers trapped by Greek inferno; Death toll now 63 as wildfires rage on.

Byline: BY LIAM CHRISTOPHER Daily Post Correspondent

FIREFIGHTERS scrambled a helicopter to rescue people trapped by flames in southern Greece yesterday, one of dozens of fires that have torn through villages and forests, leaving a blackened landscape in their wake.

The worst wildfires in memory have killed 63 people in Greece, destroying everything in their path. One fire broke out on the fringe of Athens but was quickly brought under control. Another scorched the woodland around the birthplace of the Olympics.

The flames were driven back from the capital and Ancient Olympia, but a helicopter headed to the village of Frixa in the western Peloponnese to rescue people surrounded by fire.

A woman found dead on Friday with her arms around the bodies of four children had fled her home - the only house left standing in the village, said a neighbour in the Peloponnese town of Artemi-da. The home's white walls and red roof were unscathed; it was surrounded by blackened earth.

New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

"The whole village is burning. It's been burning for three days," one woman sobbed, clutching her 20-month-old daughter as they sheltered in a church with others near Figalia.

Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is responsible for prosecuting terrorism and organised crime, ordered an investigation to determine "whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests" could come under Greece's anti-terrorism law, the Public Order Ministry said.

Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in designated forests and fires could be set to circumvent law by disputing the status of the area.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a televised address. "The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

Several people have been arrested on suspicion of arson, although some were accused of starting fires through negligence rather than intent. But one man was charged with arson and homicide in connection with a fire near the town of Areopolis on Friday that killed six people.

By yesterday morning alone, 89 new fires broke out, said fire spokesman Nikos Diamandis.

The fires hit during the August holidays when villages across Greece are filled with people from Athens and other large cities returning to their ancestral areas. The Feast of the Assumption on August 15 is one of Greece's main holidays.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted, with many blaming authorities for leaving them defenceless. Scores of people were treated for burns and breathing problems as the government declared a state of emergency.

The front of one fire on Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards away.

Although the forest around was burned, none of the 2,800-year-old ruins were damaged.

Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, and along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, as they tried to escape. A neighbour said that their house was unscathed.

The government appealed for help from abroad, and 17 countries were sending planes, helicopters and firefighters.

Weekend wildfires also killed two elderly people in neighbouring Bulgaria.

Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land


Fires burn on the Hill of Kronos, next to the site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, in south western Greece Picture: PETROS GIANNAKOURIS
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 28, 2007
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