State of emergency declared as fires kill 49 in Greece

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At least 49 people burned to death and many more were feared missing as huge forest fires, fanned by gale-force winds, raged out of control across southern Greece yesterday. By late afternoon, buildings were burning on the outskirts of Athens. Ash rained down on the Acropolis and the main road linking the capital to its airport had to be closed.

Last night Greece declared a national state of emergency. Several children are among the casualties, and the body of a mother and her four children were found close to their home. Two French tourists are known to have died. More victims, authorities fear, will be discovered in villages still cut off behind walls of flames.

In the greater Athens area, a monastery was evacuated and the main highway between Athens and its international airport was blocked off as two new forest fires broke out on Saturday afternoon. Flames approached the capital's eastern outskirts, damaging buildings. Some fire-fighting forces had to diverted from the Peloponnese as clouds of smoke billowed over Athens.

In Evia, north of the capital, three villages were evacuated. A woman from the town of Aliveri called a radio station saying she could see her house burning and there were no firefighters in the area. The fire department said there were 87 active fronts.

These are the country's worst forest fires in decades, and fears have been expressed that the death toll could rise when firefighters reach mountain villages that have been cut off for days. In the area of Zaharo where most of the dead were found, nine people, including three firefighters, were killed after a car crashed into a fire truck and led to a pile-up as residents tried to flee the area. The smouldering remains of the fire truck and the charred wreckage of cars and a motorbike lay strewn across the main road.

In the village of Kakovatos, one of at least 15 villages in the area that have been evacuated, houses could be seen burning as residents tried to fight the blazes with garden hoses. An elderly woman, one of many locals who were moved to the safety of a nearby beach by rescuers, said the village where she has lived all her life no longer exists.

As flags flew at half-mast over Parliament, Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister, on Saturday led an emergency meeting of ministers in Athens. Karamanlis described the Peloponnese fire as an unspeakable tragedy. " This is a day of national mourning," he said. "I wish to express my deep grief over the lost lives... we are fighting against heavy odds on many fronts."

The Greek government has appealed to EU countries to "send any help they can". France said it would send two firefighting aircraft, while Germany offered three helicopters and non-EU member Norway offered one aircraft. The hot, dry winds, which are expected to subside this evening, prevented most firefighting planes from taking off, leaving only ground forces to fight the flames.

Arson was suspected in several cases, with 20 new fires starting on Friday night, according to a fire service spokesman. The Greek media have been openly talking of arson, quoting firefighters saying that "fires keep popping up one after the other all across the country with mathematical accuracy".

The government is under pressure, as it faces an early general election. This summer's fires have been a major issue in the political campaign after the Prime Minister called a snap election.

Rebecca Bradshaw, a Briton who has spent the last month in Kalamata in the Peloponnese, said that for three days she has been watching the fires burning in the distance, gradually coming closer. "I've been able to see the fires on all the mountains. And at night you could see this great orange hue and the helicopters overhead. It has not been easy," she said.