Greece invokes terror laws in hunt for arsonists
While thousands fled their homes and firefighters battled walls of flames yesterday, the Greek authorities turned to anti-terrorism laws in an attempt to investigate the cause of the unprecedented inferno that has swept across the country.
By last night, the death toll had climbed to 63, with more feared dead in many towns and villages that have been consumed by the racing fires driven for the past five days by extreme temperatures and gale-force winds.
With elections looming in a little over a fortnight, the scale of the disaster has left the conservative ruling party facing the prospect of defeat. The opposition socialists have joined angry victims of the fires and ecologists to castigate the authorities for doing too little, too late. Thousands took to the streets of Athens yesterday to voice their anger at what they claim is catastrophic incompetence on the part of the government.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has responded by pointing the finger of blame at saboteurs and profiteers. He has offered a reward of €1m (£680,000) for information leading to the arrest of arsonists.
"It cannot be an accident," a government spokesman, Theodore Roussopoulos, said of the hundreds of fires that have burnt empty villages to the ground. He said that the government would stand by its planned date for a parliamentary election on 16 September.
The decision to call on the anti-terrorism police, who were responsible for bringing prosecutions against the November 17 urban guerrilla group prior to the 2004 Olympics, signals a more aggressive approach from the government to the forest fires that have routinely plagued the country, but never before with such deadly consequences.
A defence analyst, Thymis Fylliopoulos, said: "The government decision to open the inquiry doesn't mean this is a terrorism case, it does [however] insinuate that it might be." Mr Fylliopoulos said the pattern of fires and sheer number of simultaneous flashpoints meant that some proportion of the blazes may have been deliberate and premeditated.
Mounting evidence of arson has failed to deflect criticism of the ruling New Democracy party and the fires have driven all other issues off the campaign agenda since the snap elections were called.
Many people have been appalled at the willingness in some quarters to play politics while the country burns. Theodota Nantsou, of WWF Greece, said: "This is an immense ecological disaster. We had an explosive mixture of very adverse weather conditions, tinder-dry forests - to an extent not seen for many years - combined with the wild winds of the past two weeks. It's a recipe to burn the whole country."
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.
About 2,000 protesters marched through Athens to parliament to show their anger at the situation which comes only a month after the previous spate of wild fires. "I am absolutely furious; how could this happen to us? There was no planning at all and now we have 63 people dead," said Nicoleta Petsa, 30, who took her two children to the rally, organised by left-wing and anti-globalisation groups.
Earlier, opposition parties attacked the government, and Athens newspapers had front-page headlines reading: "Incompetent! Grief for the dead. Rage for the absence of the state" and "Shame for the collapse of the state".
Among the many stories of the fires, one, from the village of Artemida in the western Peloponnese, stood out. A woman who was killed on Friday, her charred body found with her arms around her four children, might have been safe if she had stayed in her home. It was the only house left untouched by the flames.