Fires die down as Greeks protest weak response


  • World
  • Thursday, 30 Aug 2007

By Dina Kyriakidou

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek firefighters started to get to grips with countrywide forest fires on Wednesday after six devastating days, but warned that a coming heatwave could reignite the flames that have killed at least 63 people. 

While survivors queued for cash handouts, thousands of people rallied in Athens to protest against what they see as a weak government response, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis who faces re-election next month. 

A van makes its way through a burnt forest to Milia village, some 300 km southwest of Athens, August 29, 2007. Greek firefighters started to get to grips with countrywide forest fires on Wednesday after six devastating days, but warned that a coming heatwave could reignite the flames that have killed at least 63 people. (REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis)

"(I'm angry at) the lives that were lost, the people that were devastated, but most of all at how the state handled the situation -- lazily and badly organised," said Maria Kyritsopoulou, 38, who attended the rally with her two small children. 

"This will surely affect the elections. I hope it will." 

More than 8,000 people, most wearing black as a sign of mourning, were estimated to have taken part in the 'silent' protest outside parliament organised by word of mouth and through blogs rather than by any political party. 

Both of Greece's main parties have lost popularity since the fires started and polls show the New Democracy party has a slight lead over the Socialist opposition PASOK ahead of the snap Sept. 16. elections called by Karamanlis before the fires began. 

The government told Reuters it estimated the fire damage at at least 0.6 percent of the gross domestic product, or 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) and said it would apply for European Union emergency aid. 

At nightfall, firefighters were trying to evacuate five villages on the southerly Peloponnese peninsula, in areas where the flames continued to burn the once verdant pine forests and olive groves that hot summer winds had turned tinder-dry. 

"We ordered evacuations but people refused to leave their homes," fire brigade spokesman Nikos Diamandis told foreign journalists. 

At the village of Kotyli, farmers watched as the flames engulfed their properties in the valley below. 

"The women and children left yesterday," said Yannis Mihalopoulos, 60. "Police have come 5-6 times to tell me to leave. But where can I go? This is my house." 

ON TOP OF THINGS 

Firefighters said they were largely on top of things but worried a new heatwave this weekend might rekindle the fires. 

As the flames died down, the devastation of the environment and economy of the fertile peninsula was painfully clear. 

Among the burned trees on the mountainside near the village of Minthi, about 70 charred goat carcasses lay putrefying in the sun, the stench of rotting flesh drifting in the wind. The body of the farmer who died with his animals had been removed. 

"Everything we had has gone. We had oil, we lived off the olives. It's all gone," said Athanassia Kazakopoulou, 77, from the village of Frixa. 

Thousands of people rushed to banks to claim an initial 3,000 euros in government compensation. Greek television showed one bank sending angry claimants away after running out of cash. 

Greeks are angry about the fires which many believe were started deliberately, and horrified by broadcasts of frantic phone calls from villagers surrounded by flames, pleading for help from the overburdened fire service. 

Greeks appeared to be becoming disillusioned with all mainstream politicians, an opinion expressed by a 73-year-old man in a hamlet left to fend for itself as the flames drew near. 

"The only thing some people are good at is being on the take," Theodoros Panagiotopoulos told Reuters in Frixa. "But we are alive, thank God." 

(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann and Michele Kambas in the Peloponnese) 

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