Dozens of soldiers and civilians have died fighting wildfires sweeping through villages and mountain forests in Algeria, as fires also break out across Tunisia.
The Defence Ministry confirmed in a statement on Wednesday the death toll has risen to 65, including 28 soldiers.
On Tuesday, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said several soldiers had died trying to rescue 100 local residents, describing them in a tweet as “martyrs.”
The wildfires have spread across large areas in Kabyle, the region home to the North African nation’s Berber population, and its capital Tizi-Ouzou which is flanked by mountains, AP reported.
Kabyle, 60 miles east of Algeria’s capital of Algiers, is famous for its rugged terrain and difficult access to villages and towns due to its hilly landscape. The wildfires have also spread to the Bejaia area, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, according to the president.
Algeria is witnessing a heatwave, with the temperature rise affecting water resources. Some villagers were fleeing, while others tried to hold back the flames themselves, using buckets, branches and rudimentary tools. The region has no water-dumping planes.
Eleven soldiers were burned fighting the fires, four of them seriously, the Defence Ministry said.
The Prime Minister, Aymen Benabderrahmane, said his government sought help from the international community and is currently leading talks with partners to charter planes to assist the firefighting efforts.
He also saId security reports showed the fires in Kabyle were “highly synchronized,” which he noted, “leads one to believe these were criminal acts.”
“Thirty fires at the same time in the same region can’t be by chance,” Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud, who had travelled to Kabyle to assess the situation, told the national TV.
On Tuesday, the General Directorate of Civil Protection in Algeria reported that the number of blazes has risen to 73 registered across 18 regions, among those are Jijel, Bouira, Setif, and Bejaia.
The National Meteorological Office forecast on Wednesday a severe heatwave would hit 21 regions, according to reports from Algerian newspaper al-Khabar .
A 92-year-old woman living in the Kabyle mountain village of Ait Saada said the scene Monday night looked like “the end of the world.”
“We were afraid,” Fatima Aoudia told The Associated Press. “The entire hill was transformed into a giant blaze.”
Aoudia compared the scene to bombings by French troops during Algeria’s brutal independence war, which ended in 1962.
“These burned down forests. It’s a part of me that is gone,” Aoudia said. “It’s a drama for humanity, for nature. It’s a disaster.”
Local reports and witnesses said the wildfires reached the outskirts of the city of Annaba on the Tunisian border, while Tunisian authorities struggled to put out similar blazes in various areas as the country recorded unprecedented high temperatures.
People were forced to leave their homes as the blazes came on swathes of forests while the local authorities in Tunisia struggled to contain them.
The wildfires on Tuesday reached the regions of Kasserine in the west and Bizerte in the north, and devoured about 1,100 hectares of trees, and caused 22 land mines to explode. No casualties were reported.
Like Algeria, officials believe the fires were caused with criminal intent.
The northern Bizerte Province recorded nine fires over the past 24 hours amid soaring temperatures, its governor was quoted as saying.
A fire was also reported on Mount Mghila near residential areas in the central Sidi Bouzid Province.
Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. A worsening drought and heat — both linked to climate change — are driving wildfires in the U.S. West and Russia’s northern region of Siberia. Extreme heat is also fueling the massive fires in Greece and Turkey.
Additional reporting by AP
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