Dying winds bring relief to firefighters in Greece

Government forced to defend handling of blazes as recriminations begin
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Dying winds yesterday helped fire-fighters to beat back the wildfires that had swept through suburbs of Athens, forcing thousands of residents to flee and putting the government on the defensive ahead of an expected snap election.

A dozen Greek, Italian and French fire-fighting aircraft battled flames that have destroyed homes and huge swathes of forest near the Greek capital. Officials said only one major fire front still threatened a community.

"The fires are developing less intensely than in previous days," said Evangelos Antonaros, a government spokesman, adding that estimates of the damage would begin as soon as possible.

Fires were smouldering in East Attica prefecture, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday, but the risk of flare-ups was still high. Fire crews were battling a new blaze near the town of Porto Germeno in West Attica.

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late on Sunday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge people to leave their communities. While thousands of families abandoned what are mainly holiday homes around Athens, many frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames from reaching their properties.

The battle against the blazes, the biggest since Greece's worst wildfires in living memory killed 65 people in 2007, will be crucial to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who had been mulling a reshuffle before an early election this autumn. "The fire has put a stop to a possible reshuffle this week," said the pro-government newspaper Apogevmatini. Mr Karamanlis's government is clinging to a one-seat majority and the socialist opposition, ahead in opinion polls, has made clear it will force a snap poll and use a March parliamentary vote, when a new president will be chosen, to achieve that.

The press and opposition parties attacked the government's handling of the disaster. The Communist KKE party urged ministers to hire more aircraft, while the far-right LAOS party said there were delays and a lack of co-ordination.

"Disorganisation, indifference, criminal negligence gave the final blow to Attica," said the liberal daily newspaper Eleftherotypia on its front page, echoing many other Greek media.

The government defended its handling of the fire, blaming strong winds for its destructive path. The flames damaged scores of homes and seared about 37,000 acres of forest, farmland and olive groves. A public prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether arson caused the blaze in an area where fires were started by greedy developers in the past.

Two Italian and one French aircraft, as well as a helicopter and about 40 fire-fighters from Cyprus, joined the battle. Four helicopters, 187 fire engines and about 430 firefighters and 300 soldiers were also tackling the blaze, officials said.

The fire broke out late on Friday in the village of Grammatiko, about 25 miles north-east of the capital, and quickly spread to neighbouring villages. A children's hospital, a home for the elderly and a monastery were evacuated.

Summer wildfires caused by high temperatures and winds, drought or arson are frequent in Greece. Hundreds of blazes across southern Europe destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and gutted dozens of homes in July.