An unprecedented wave of massive fires raged out of control across Greece, sweeping into mountainous towns and villages and killing at least 17 people in the south, including two found locked in an embrace.
Hot, dry winds gusting to gale force prevented firefighting planes from taking off, leaving only ground forces to fight the flames in the southern Peloponnese, occasionally helped by helicopters.
More fires were reported across the country during the night. With firefighting services stretched to the limit, the military was called in to help. Hundreds of people were reportedly trapped by the flames, many in mountainous villages in the western Peloponnese, near the town of Zaharo.
"We are living through an unspeakable tragedy today," said Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who visited Zaharo late on Friday. "I want to express my pain for the loss" of lives. Five hundred soldiers, as well as several military helicopters, were to join the firefighting efforts at first light on Saturday, said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. Dozens of soldiers were already helping battle the flames.
"Our efforts are now focusing on saving human lives wherever there are people trapped, and on limiting the fronts," he said. Dozens of houses went up in flames. Residents and local officials from across Greece called television stations to issue desperate appeals for help.
"I'm one person, all alone in the dark in a blazing valley. I need help," said one man, whom Mega television identified as the mayor of Palaiochori village. It did not give his name. One woman in the village of Rodina, near Zaharo, told Antenna television that about 20 people, including children, were trapped in the village.
"We can see the fire in front of us. It's at our feet," said the woman, who did not give her name. "We're choking on the smoke."
Hundreds of kilometers (miles) away on the island of Evia north of Athens, Styra mayor Sofia Moutsou called a television station to say her entire region was burning.
"I'm appealing for help. There is not an inch of land in the municipality that hasn't been burned," she said. "The night is long. The fire extends across thousands of (hectares) around us. The situation is out of control."
The country's most dangerous fire was at Zaharo, where at least 10 people, including three firefighters, died after their vehicles were trapped by the flames, Diamandis said. The town's mayor, Pantazis Chronopoulos, who said he barely escaped the blaze, feared the death toll could rise because of reports of several villages encircled by flames.
One more person was found dead between two villages in the area, Diamandis said. He said authorities were investigating reports of another two deaths.
Zaharo Deputy Mayor Andonis Krespis, who was injured in the blaze, spoke on television from his hospital bed, burns on his face covered with cream.
"I counted about seven people dead," Krespis said, adding that the casualties had abandoned their cars and tried to escape the flames through a field, the same way he had managed to get out. Diamandis said several civilians and firefighters had been injured and were taken to local hospitals, but he could not give an exact number.
Senior health ministry official Panagiotis Efstathiou said hospitals in the region had been put on alert. Television footage showed flames towering above homes on the outskirts of Zaharo, turning the night sky orange.
In another fire across the Peloponnese to the southeast, five people were killed earlier Friday near a hotel on the outskirts of the town of Areopolis _ including two whose charred bodies were found locked in an embrace. None has been identified. A firefighter also died of a heart attack while battling that fire, Diamandis said.
With about 150 fires blazing across Greece, the government appealed to European Union countries to "send any help they can," acting Interior Minister Spyros Flogaitis said after an emergency meeting of Greece's civil protection authority.
With early elections just three weeks away, the devastating fires are almost certain to become a political issue. Karamanlis' government has already come under criticism for its response to previous fires that ravaged Greece earlier this summer. Ten people, including five firefighters, had died in those earlier fires. A recent three-day heat wave, in which temperatures have touched 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), has left forests and shrubland parched and the flames have been fanned by strong winds across Greece.
"We are witnessing a national tragedy," said opposition Socialist party leader George Papandreou. "We look on with anger at these scenes of biblical destruction."
Greece has suffered its worst summer for forest fires this year, with hundreds of blazes burning thousands of hectares of forest and brushland across the country.
Athens saw vast swaths of forest and shrubland on three of the four mountains ringing the sprawling capital go up in flames. A weeklong blaze in June devastated large expanses of fir and pine forest in a national park on Mt. Parnitha, on the northwestern fringes of Athens.