Pearl of the Adriatic is saved from wall of flames

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A 12-mile wall of flame has brought the Croatian city of Dubrovnik closer to destruction than at any time since Serb fighters bombarded it in the Balkans war.

The mayor was forced to declare a state of emergency as the fire advanced on the walled medieval city, a Unesco World Heritage site and the country's biggest tourist attraction.

For the first time since the 1991 Serbo-Croat war, authorities prepared shelters in an ancient fortress and a sports hall in case residents needed to be evacuated.

Firefighters waged a frantic overnight battle against the flames that had been whipped up even further by strong winds.

The fire started in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina and ploughed its way through pine forests and swampland over the weekend, towards the port city that lies on the Adriatic.

But 1,000 firefighters and two Canadair planes managed to bring the blaze under control as the winds eased. Yesterday, only one abandoned house in a Dubrovnik suburb was found to have been burnt down, although smoke could still be seen blanketing the hills around the city.

"The flames are under control along the entire line," acting fire chief Tomislav Vuko told the AFP news agency. "In some quarters we had to fight the fire from house to house, but we have succeeded in limiting the magnitude of the damage."

About 26 firefighters were injured in the rescue operation. The European Commission said last week that more than 3,000 sq kms of forest in southern Europe had burnt so far this year, nearly as much as for the whole of 2006.

Across the Adriatic, in Italy, the fire that has ravaged hundreds of forested areas over recent weeks picked up again with the strong winds. The region of Campania, centred on Naples, demanded that the central government declare an emergency after fires broke out on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and spread to parts of the Amalfi coast, the long and beautiful rocky coastline south of Naples.

Further south in Puglia, on the heel of the Italian boot, the authorities feared another disaster like the one that consumed the forests around the tourist town of Peschichi on the Gargano promontory last week, when thousands of holidaymakers had to be rescued by helicopter after the flames drove them on to the beaches.

At Manduria in the Taranto region, home of Puglia's famous Primitivo wine, flames threatened to engulf a car park and the beach, and the authorities warned holidaymakers to flee the area. The intervention of two fire-fighting helicopters brought a halt to the advance of the flames.

The Environment minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, called for preventive measures to ward against future fires, and for tough judicial penalties for those including both pyromaniacs and criminals belonging to organised gangs who start them deliberately.

Italian authorities believe the great majority of the fires that have struck the peninsula this summer have been set deliberately, many of them by organised criminals who take advantage of the temperature and the winds to destroy protected natural areas. Using their clout with corrupt local governments, they can then arrange for them to be redesignated as areas where development is permitted - and ensure that firms controlled by the gangs win the resulting building contracts.