Rampaging fires threaten birthplace of the Olympics

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The flames were licking the outskirts of the birthplace of the Olympic games before they were held back by firefighters as they tackled Greece's worst forest fires in living memory.

By last night, 57 people had perished in the inferno, as a wall of fire crossed the Peloponnese peninsula of southern Greece, and raced to the hill overlooking the ancient Olympic site.

"It was stopped just before entering the archaeological site," said a fire brigade spokesman. "Six planes, two helicopters, 15 fire engines and 45 firemen participated in the effort."

Clouds of choking black smoke billowed over the surrounding hills and blocked out the sun, making it difficult to breathe. Flames were everywhere, and the wind intensified in the evening. But it was pushing the blaze away from the site holding the ruins of the stadium and pagan temples that hosted the Olympics for centuries from 776BC and is the site of an Olympic flame ceremony every two years.

"Here it is, the contrast: ancient Greece gave the world civilisation and modern Greece gives it destruction," a local resident told Alter television station.

As we drove to Olympia along a road network dotted with blazes everywhere we watched beautiful pine forests burn as the fires spread from right to left at lightning speed on the road to Epidavros. The charred remains of cars and houses lined the road.

In Sofiko, just off Corinth, a large fire broke out at 10.30am and tore through the forest, after locals organised night-time patrols to head off disaster.

Residents from nearby villages tried to help firefighters deal with the blaze, using anything that came to hand, despite pleas from the police to get out.

One resident, Arthouros Motsios, said: "All I can do is sit here and watch my land burn. I can see it, but there is nothing I can do. I feel very, very heavy, really sad, it's such a crime."

The government declared a national emergency on Saturday as the death toll rose from the fires burning out of control, and people affected by the fires refused to leave their homes.

The police were saying: "We don't want you to burn like rats so get out while you can." After being accused initially of failing to co-ordinate the fire-fighting efforts, the government had got the operation in full swing by yesterday as international help arrived in the form of three French and two Italian planes. Assistance from 11 countries was promised for today.

At least one man was in custody on suspicion of arson last night, and officials suggested that many of the fires had been set deliberately. One woman spoke of how villagers had been receiving calls through the night saying: "We're going to burn you, we're going to burn you." The public order ministry announced a reward for information leading to the arrest of arsonists. "The reward is set between €100,000 (£68,000) to €1m for every arson, depending on whether death or serious injury occurred and the size of the damage," the ministry said.

In Olympia, the flames consumed trees and shrubs and scorched the yard of the new archaeological museum, which was protected by five fire trucks. The firemen arrived early on the scene to bring the fire under control as a national priority in order to prevent one of the best known sites of antiquity being engulfed.

Residents were evacuated, and only one house was burnt down. But an elderly woman was found burnt to death just outside Olympia. Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Olympia, said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "It's hell everywhere," he said.

Further down in the mountain villages some people were still trapped, with helicopters trying to rescue them. The worst-affected region was around the town of Zaharo, south ofOlympia.