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Fire breaks out near Athens; toll 61

world Updated: Aug 27, 2007 19:40 IST

A fire broke out on Monday on the fringes of Athens, burning down a slope of Mount Ymittos and bearing down on a suburb of the capital as wildfires that have killed at least 61 people ravaged vast areas of the country.

Four planes, a helicopter and 15 trucks with 45 firefighters were scrambled to the blaze, which was burning through shrubs towards the suburb of Papagou, the fire department said. A pall of smoke hung over central Athens, and the smell of burning permeated the air. For four days, the entire country has been swept by Greece's worst wildfires in living memory.

Fueled by strong, hot winds and parched grass and trees, they have engulfed villages, forests and farmland, leaving in their wake a blackened landscape dotted with the carcasses of animals. New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control.

From Evros in the north to the Western islands of Corfu and Kefalonia and down to the Peloponnese in the south, the same scenes played out: old and young alike grabbed garden hoses, buckets of water and tree branches to beat back the flames in desperate and often futile efforts to save their homes.

Hundreds of people were believed to have been left homeless. "The whole village is burning. It's been burning for three days," one woman sobbed, clutching her 20-month-old daughter as they sheltered in a church along with dozens of others near Figalia in the western Peloponnese.

Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic games and one of the most revered ancient sites, barely escaped on Sunday, when a massive firefighting effort saved the 2,800-year-old ruins from flames that were leaping up to 100 meters (300 feet) in the air.

The flames burned trees and shrubs just a few meters (yards) from the walls of the museum at the 2,800-year-old site, one of Greece's top tourist attractions. Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above.

Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters. Pristine cypress and pine forests around the site were obliterated, but the ruins were saved.

The worst affected were the island of Evia north of Athens and the Peloponnese in southern Greece, where the fire department said one more person was found dead on Monday, bringing the toll to at least 61.

The government, which declared a state of emergency over the weekend, appealed for help from abroad, and more than 12 countries were sending planes, helicopters and firefighters. French and Spanish aircraft and Israeli firefighters were among those joining the fight against the massive blazes. A firefighting helicopter from Norway was expected to arrive later on Monday.

In the 24 hours from 6 am on Sunday until Monday morning, 89 new fires broke out, fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. Twenty-eight were considered particularly dangerous, the department said.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted against authorities accused of leaving them defenseless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems.

The destruction has infuriated Greeks _ already stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July _ and appears likely to dominate political debate before early general elections scheduled for September 16.

"I am very angry. The government was totally unable to deal with this situation," Ancient Olympia schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

By sea and by land, hundreds of people were evacuated from villages, hotels and resorts. Others took refuge in churches and schools, while the Health Ministry was sending hundreds of tents to southern Greece to house those left homeless.

Authorities have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested. The government offered a reward of up to euro1 million (US$1.4 million) for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers but nothing has approached the scale of the past three days. Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.

Nearly 4,000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, were sent to reinforce firefighters over the past three days. The government announced on Sunday it would offer up to euro10,000 ($13,600) to people who lost relatives or property.