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Fires near Athens recede

Dying winds today helped fire-fighters beat back wildfires that swept through suburbs of Athens, forcing thousands to flee and putting the government on the defensive before an expected snap election.

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

"The fires are developing less intensely than in previous days," said government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros, adding that damage estimates would begin as soon as fires were put out.

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

The fires had retreated from Athens suburbs late yesterday, when authorities used loudspeakers to urge thousands to leave their communities.

While thousands abandoned what are mainly holiday homes around Athens, many frantically used garden hoses and tree branches to try to stop the flames reaching their properties.

The battle against the fire, 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 Apogevmatini daily.

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 fire. The Communist KKE party urged the government to hire more planes and the far-right LAOS said there were delays and lack of coordination.

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

The government defended its handling of the fire, blaming extremely strong winds for its destructive path. The flames damaged scores of homes and seared about 37,000 acres of forest, farm fields and olive groves.

A public prosecutor ordered an inquiry into whether arson was behind the blaze in an area where fires had in the past been started by greedy developers.

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 fire-fighters also fought the blaze, fire officials said. Some 300 soldiers were also dispatched.

The fire broke out late on Friday in the village of Grammatiko about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the Greek capital and quickly spread to neighbouring villages. A children's hospital, a home for the elderly and a monastery were evacuated.

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