Fires rage around Greek capital

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A FOREST fire raging unchecked on Mount Pendeli near Athens engulfed several homes in holiday communities yesterday and was threatening a monastery and a hospital, police said.

Flames leaping 60 feet high have razed thousands of acres of thick pine forest since the fire broke out on Sunday evening, burning at least four homes and damaging several others.

The Pendeli Hospital, the St Pandeleimon monastery and a centre for disabled children were evacuated as the blaze came dangerously close.

"It is certainly arson. The fire could not possibly start on its own in thick forest in the middle of the night," said Stamatis Kriemadis, the mayor of the village of Stamata, close to where the fire started.

The fire brigade closed off the Pendeli road, connecting Athens with its northern coastal resorts, and appealed to the public to avoid the area. The road was heavily congested with local residents fleeing by car and on foot. People were frantically searching for relatives who were feared trapped behind the fire front, shouting out their names and begging firemen for help, said a photographer at the scene.

Police said only three fire engines, aided by local community water trucks, fire-fighting planes and volunteers were battling the blaze, which cast a dark brown cloud over the Greek capital. The St Pandeleimon monastery was evacuated shortly before it was cut off by the fire. Some of the nuns were carried off by force after refusing to abandon it, police said.

Greece has been plagued by scores of forest fires, some around the Greek capital, where three firemen and a volunteer were burned to death in an effort to stop the blaze from reaching a busy Athens suburb last month. On July 28 an Athens public prosecutor ordered an investigation into the spate of forest fires that have razed thousands of acres of land around the country.