Greece turns down Israeli help, says it has gained control

Wildfires near Athens kill 50, injure 170

Country’s entire fleet of water-dropping planes and helicopters deployed to help vacationers escape deadliest blaze in a decade

A firefighter sprays water on the fire in the town of Mati, east of Athens, July 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
A firefighter sprays water on the fire in the town of Mati, east of Athens, July 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Fifty people were killed and 170 were injured in wildfires ravaging woodland and villages in the Athens region, as Greek authorities rushed to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches along the coast on Tuesday.

The gale-fanned wildfires raged through vacation resorts near Greece’s capital, in the country’s deadliest fire season in more than a decade.

The authorities had previously announced 24 deaths, before finding 26 dead at a villa in the coastal town of Mati. The bodies were entwined and severely burnt, an AFP photographer at the scene said. They appeared to have been caught by the flames trying to reach the sea.

Of the injured, 11 people were in serious condition.

Port authorities told AFP they had found four bodies in the sea, including three women and a child who had apparently tried to escape the flames.

There were fears the toll may rise further, as people remained unaccounted for.

Interior Minister Panos Skourletis said rescue workers were “still searching if there are more missing”.

“It’s a national tragedy,” civil protection agency official Ioanna Tsoupra told public broadcaster ERT.

By dawn Tuesday, fires were still burning around the capital, while others broke out elsewhere during the night.

Authorities were trying to evacuate inhabitants, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said.

“Fifteen fires had started simultaneously on three different fronts in Athens”, he said, prompting Greece to request drones from the United States, “to observe and detect any suspicious activity.”

International aid

Greece sought international help through the European Union as the fires on either side of Athens left lines of cars torched, charred farms and forests, and sent hundreds of people racing to beaches to be evacuated by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats.

Winds reached 80 kph (50 mph) as authorities deployed the country’s entire fleet of water-dropping planes and helicopters to give vacationers time to escape. Military drones remained in the air in the high winds to help officials direct more than 600 firefighters on the ground.

“We were unlucky. The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes,” said Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the port town of Rafina, a sleepy mainland port that serves Greek holiday islands.

Buildings burn in the town of Mati, east of Athens, July 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The dock area became a makeshift hospital as paramedics checked survivors when they came off coast guard vessels and private boats. The operation continued through the night.

The death toll rose further after the coast guard counted four bodies recovered at sea, a short distance from the fires.

At daybreak Tuesday, Ambulance Service deputy director Miltiadis Mylonas said the number of casualties was likely to rise as the more gutted homes and cars were checked.

“It took people by surprise and the events happened very fast. Also, the fires broke out on many fronts, so all these factors made the situation extremely difficult,” he said.

“The task we face now is organizing the identification of victims by members of their families.”

The fire posed no immediate threat to Greece’s famed ancient monuments, but as it raged inland where children’s’ summer camps and holiday homes were hastily abandoned. Fleeing drivers clogged highways into the capital, hampering the firefighting effort, and flecks of ash swirled onto central Athens.

A motorcyclist looks at smoldering shrubbery on a road near Kineta, west of Athens, July 23, 2018 (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

It was the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade. More than 60 people were killed in 2007 when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.

“It’s a difficult night for Greece,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after flying back to Athens from a trip to Bosnia that was cut short.

Authorities said Cyprus and Spain had offered assistance after the request for EU help was made.

Israel also offered to help Greece, with the Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that “At this stage, the Greek authorities are saying they have gained control of the fires. Just in any case, we have put crews on alert. Israel is at the disposal of Greece if it becomes necessary.”

Greek Fire Service officials issued public pleas for residents in fire-affected areas to comply with evacuation orders and not stay on in an effort trying to save their homes.

A plume of smoke turns large parts of the sky orange, with the ancient Acropolis hill at center, as a forest fire burns in a mountainous area west of Athens, sending nearby residents fleeing, July 23, 2018 (AP Photo/Theodora Tongas)

Rafina’s mayor said he believed about 100 houses in that area had burned. The fire service was not able to confirm the figure.

Showers that passed over the Greek capital Monday missed the two big fires — one at Rafina, 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the east, and the other at Kineta, 55 kilometers (35 miles) to the west. Heavy rain is forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday.

Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently hit highs up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

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