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Prosecutor orders probe into Greek fires

AP | August 27, 2007

ATHENS, Greece - A top prosecutor ordered an investigation Monday into whether this summer's arson attacks in Greek forests could be considered terrorism, the Public Order Ministry said.

Meanwhile, a fire broke out on the fringes of Athens a day after a massive effort prevented the birthplace of the Olympics from being devastated by flames.

Dimitris Papangelopoulos, who is responsible for prosecuting terrorism and organized crime, ordered the investigation to determine "whether the crimes of arsonists and of arson attacks on forests" could come under Greece's anti-terrorism law, the ministry said in a statement.

The probe also will seek to establish the identities of the alleged perpetrators.

Greece has been ravaged by hundreds of massive wildfires since Friday that have left at least 61 people dead. The country also suffered fires in June and July, although they were not nearly on the same scale.

Government officials have said they suspect at least some of the blazes have been caused by arson. The government has offered a reward of up to $1.36 million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address on Saturday. "The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

Several people have been arrested on suspicion of arson since Friday, although some were accused of starting fires through negligence rather than intent. One man, however, was charged with arson and homicide in connection with a fire near the southern town of Areopolis on Friday that killed six people.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and anger mounted, with many blaming authorities for leaving them defenseless. Scores of people were treated in hospitals for burns and breathing problems. The government declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

The front of one fire Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site. Firefighters said the flames, fanned by high winds and swirling air, leaped hundreds of feet in the air at times.

Although the pristine forest around Ancient Olympia was burned, none of the 2,800-year-old ruins were damaged.

"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," Diamandis said. Authorities said at least two firefighters had been injured in the battle with the flames on Sunday.

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.

"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia, who said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."

Across the country, 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.

The worst of the fires have been concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

"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.

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in. Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese.

Meanwhile, weekend wildfires also killed two elderly people in neighboring Bulgaria, officials said Monday. They died in a fire that burned down their house in the southern village of Prisadets, said Darina Stamatova, spokeswoman of the regional administration.

An Associated Press photographer on the scene said almost all houses in the villages of Prisadets, Varnik and Filipovo were destroyed by the flames.

A blistering hot summer has led to more than a thousand wildfires across Bulgaria in the past three months burning down 84,000 acres of forests and farm fields, the government said.

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