Greek PM attacked over forest blaze

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The Independent Online
GREEK firefighters brought a four-day-old forest blaze under control near Athens yesterday, but the government was criticised for failing to prevent the destruction of scores of homes.

Flames that had raged unchecked since Sunday ruined about 100 homes, damaged hundreds of others, burnt three factories and a school and razed thousands of acres of precious pine forest on Mount Pendeli, according to initial estimates.

"The government is a national disaster," said the front-page headline in the conservative daily Vradini. Other newspapers echoed its view, accusing the state's fire-fighting apparatus of incompetence. "The state is proven incapable of averting a predictable crime against nature and society," said the daily Kathimerini in a lead editorial.

Following strong criticism from opposition parties, the Socialist Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, interrupted his holiday on Tuesday to return to Athens and chair an emergency meeting on the fire, which government officials blamed on arsonists.

"State authorities are asleep and Mr Simitis, who is not even here, insists that everything is going well," Costas Karamanlis, leader of the conservative opposition New Democracy party, told reporters as he walked through charred forest on Tuesday.

Television news showed frantic scenes of people abandoning their homes in cars and on foot, or trying to put out flames with branches and wet sheets. Some residents stormed fire engines, imploring firemen to put out flames burning their homes.

The Public Order Minister, George Romeos, dismissed the claims. He said firemen had been brought in from all over Greece to fight the fire, which swept as close as the north Athens suburb of Vrilissia.

On 28 July, an Athens public prosecutor ordered an investigation into allegations that arsonists were starting fires to make space for construction development and that the state's fire-fighting services were not operating properly.

Greece has been plagued by scores of forest fires this summer, including several around the capital, where three firemen and a volunteer were burnt to death last month in an effort to stop flames from reaching a suburb.

Critics blame weaknesses in battling forest fires on a government decision to switch fire-fighting responsibility from the forestry department to the fire brigade in May, shortly before the usually busy summer season.

The Pendeli blaze also burnt a summer camp for disabled children and threatened a state hospital. All were evacuated, along with a monastery, factories and a school, as flames leaping 20 metres (65ft) came dangerously close.

More than 600 firemen, several fire-fighting planes which bombard flames with water, army helicopters and hundreds of soldiers and volunteers fought the inferno.