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French army rapped over blaze as Europe battles wildfires

The French army faced mounting flak after a military exercise sparked a sweeping wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille, as firefighters battled blazes across southern Europe.

world Updated: Jul 24, 2009 10:31 IST

The French army faced mounting flak on Friday after a military exercise sparked a sweeping wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille, as firefighters battled blazes across southern Europe.

"This fire was clearly triggered by a professional mistake," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on late Thursday after the blaze ripped through 1,300 hectares (3,211 acres) of brush and damaged homes near France's second city.

"Tracer rounds are outlawed, not only during this period but in principle in all the camps in the south," a region more prone to forest fires, the prime minister said, announcing that a probe was underway.

Defence Minister Herve Morin termed it an "extremely regrettable, deplorable act."

The fire erupted Wednesday after troops from the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment used tracer rounds, which contain an incendiary substance to make them visible in flight, during a practice session at their base.

The blaze was contained by dawn Thursday, but this did little to calm local officials, who noted that it was the second time in as many years the army had started a wildfire.

Local prefect Michel Sappin, the French government's senior regional official and police chief, blasted the "imbecilic" actions of the military.

The officer who ordered the exercise - a 43-year-old from the island of Reunion - was taken into judicial custody after being suspended from his duties, according to a source close to the case.

A fifth firefighter died in Spain on Thursday and two people perished on the Italian island of Sardinia, while wildfires raged in Greece.

Though no one was killed in France, one fireman suffered burns and four rescuers were treated for smoke inhalation.

In Corsica, two villages near the southern city of Ajaccio were evacuated Thursday after wildfires raced through 3,600 hectares of tinder-dry forest.

Two major fires were raging overnight and only one had been brought under control, Bruno Maestracci, a spokesman for the fire service told AFP early Friday, adding that the rescuers were battling the flames "from house to house."

About 50 cars and 10 homes were destroyed, he said, adding that two horses had also perished. The fires had picked up speed on Thursday evening, fanned by strong winds, he added.

Ten water-dropping planes had been sent to help firefighters contain the blaze, which cut the main road between Ajaccio and Bastia, toppled telephone poles and filled the air with thick black smoke.

In Spain, a 47-year-old fireman was killed in the Aragon region when the vehicle he was driving fell into a ravine, a statement from the local government said.

He was the fifth firefighter to die this week, after four of his colleagues perished in the neighbouring region of Catalonia on Tuesday.

Six fires in the northeast province of Teruel, in Aragon, remained out of control having burned more than 8,000 hectares of forest and brush, the regional government said.

More than 500 firefighters and members of the security forces sought to bring the blazes under control, having evacuated more than 1,500 people from their homes, officials said.

A regional government statement said the fires were believed to have been started by storms on Tuesday across the Aragon region.

The regional government in Castile-Leon estimated that 3,000 hectares had been destroyed in the Trevino area. In the same region, fire had swept through 1,200 hectares in Soria province.

The Spanish authorities appealed for help from France while Portugal sent a water-bombing aircraft.

Smaller fires stretched emergency services in Navarro and the Basque region in the north, Valencia in the east and Castile-La Mancha in central Spain.

In Italy, two people were killed as fires burned on the island of Sardinia Thursday, while authorities evacuated homes and a beach due to approaching flames.

Several fires broke out in Greece, mainly in the southern Peloponnese and on the island of Evia, destroying forests and farms. In 2007, 77 people died in forest fires in Greece.