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Greek city prepares to evacuate 75,000 people to defuse WWII bomb

Authorities in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki have distributed fliers and put up posters as part of preparations to evacuate about 75,000 people in order to defuse an unexploded Second World War bomb.

Bomb disposal experts are to tackle the 500-pound device, found buried beneath a petrol station, on Sunday in an operation expected to last about six hours.

All residents in a nearly two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius are to be evacuated, starting at 7am (0500 GMT) on Sunday.

The bomb, dropped during an air raid on the city in the 1940s, was found last week during work to expand fuel storage tanks.

A state of emergency has been declared in the three municipalities involved and about 1,000 police and 300 volunteers are expected to help out during the evacuation, Thessaloniki's deputy governor Voula Patoulidou said.

"It is the first time something like this is happening in Greece," Patoulidou said.

"The transfer of all residents is mandatory and we will go door-to-door to make sure everyone leaves."

Thessaloniki's long-distance bus terminal, which is in the area, will shut down during the operation, and trains will also stop running to and from the city, as the main railway line passes through the exclusion zone.

Traffic along a major road nearby will be halted, while churches in the area will not hold services.

Army spokesman Colonel Nikos Fanios said the device's exterior was too degraded to be able to determine whether it was a German or an Allied bomb.

But one resident said he recalls the day it fell.

"The bombing was done by English and American planes on September 17 1944. It was Sunday lunchtime," said Giorgos Gerasimou, 86, whose home is 800 metres (half a mile) from where the bomb was found.

"We could see the planes coming."

They were targeting local German rail facilities, he said.

Nazi Germany occupied Greece from 1941 until October 1944.

A 13-year-old at the time, Mr Gerasimou said he and his friends would go to the railway station each day for food rations.

"That day something told me I had to leave, and in the end we did," Mr Gerasimou said.

"When I heard the (air raid) sirens, I jumped into a ditch with my friends and we survived."

Another one of his friends was not so lucky.

Ten-year-old Panagiotis was killed in the air raid, Mr Gerasimou said, clutching a photo of the boy that he keeps to this day.

During Sunday's evacuation, residents will be transported by bus to schools, sports halls and cultural centres elsewhere in the city while the exclusion zone is cordoned off.

Army bomb disposal experts will initially attempt to defuse the bomb's detonator, and then transport the device to an army firing range, where they will determine what further steps to take, said Col Fanios.

"Every operation involving munitions is always difficult," he said.

Some residents expressed concern about leaving their properties vacant.

"I'm really worried about the house, mainly in case thieves take advantage of the evacuation," said Giorgos Aravias, 44.

"I hope there are security measures in place."

AP

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