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Greece blaze threatens ancient site
Greek government offers up to $1.36m for information on arsonists.
Last Modified: 26 Aug 2007 20:10 GMT

A resident stands on the roof of his house in Varvasaina in south Peloponnese [Reuters]

Massive forest fires have consumed large areas of southern Greece, killing 57 people and threatening one of the country's most revered sites of antiquity.
 
Fires reached the ancient site of Olympia on Sunday, as fire brigades evacuated villages near the site, and the government offered a $1.36m reward for information on suspected arsonists.
Haralambos Giannaras, manager of the Greek Olympic Committee facilities, said staff were leaving and noted the fire was "heading towards the museum".
 
Nikos Diamandis, a fire brigade spokesman, said the "goal is to stop the fire from going through the Ancient Olympia site".
But he noted: "Despite our efforts, there has been no progress."
 
Three planes and two helicopters bombarded the blaze, which had reached the villages of Pelopio and Platanos near Olympia. About 90 firefighters and soldiers were deployed in the area.
 
The public order ministry said in a statement it was offering up to $1.36m for information leading to the arrest of any arsonists responsible for the fires.
 
George Voulgarakis, the Greek minister for culture, was heading to the ancient site to co-ordinate efforts to save the antiquities, the ministry said.
 
The army was called in to create a fire break. "All means are being used, and all necessary measures have been taken," the ministry said in a statement.
 
Swath of destruction
 
Olympia at risk


Greece's forest fires reached the village of Olympia on Sunday.

 - Olympia has been inhabited since prehistoric times and in the 10th century BC became a centre for the worship of Zeus.

 - It was the site of the Olympic Games from 776 BC until the third century AD and the remains of the sports structures are still visable.

 - Olympia's museum houses a number of famous classical sculptures, such as Hermes by Praxiteles, and other finds from the collapsed pagan temples.

 - The area has been designated as a Unesco world heritage site.

In the Peloponnese and across other regions, forest fires have cut a swath of destruction, burning about 500 homes, thousands of acres of forest and farmland and causing thousands to flee.
 
The forest fires, the worst in Greece for decades, broke out on Friday and have since erupted on scores of fronts around the country, prompting Costas Karamanlis, the Greek prime minister, to blame arsonists for some of the blazes.
 
The worst of Greece's fire, on 42 major fronts, were concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in southern Greece and on the island of Evia north of Athens.
 
Around the town of Zaharo thick smoke blocked out the sun and could be seen almost 100km away.
 
Laurence Lee, reporting for Al Jazeera from close to Zaharo, said: "In this entire region there are five fire engines. We've seen no army here and I don't think they are expecting to see the army here. They [residents] say they've been abandoned.
 
"They don't exactly blame the authorities for this - clearly they blame primarily the arsonists - but because this has happened before and because they haven't had any help before they really don't expect anything this time. But the problem is this is clearly so much worse."
 
Satellite images show the extent
of the blaze in the Peloponnese [AFP]
New fires also broke out on Sunday in the central region of Fthiotida, one of the few areas that had been unscathed, the fire brigade said.
 
In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews on Saturday picked through dozens of charred bodies found in fields, homes, along roads and in cars, including the remains of a mother hugging her four children.
 
The fire brigade confirmed 51 deaths, but the search of burned areas continued.
 
State of emergency
 
EU firefighters and planes joined efforts by the Greek military and firefighters to stem the blaze after Greece declared a state of emergency across the country on Saturday.
 
Nicole Itano, a journalist in Athens, told Al Jazeera: "No one here can remember a time when a national disaster for the entire nation has been called. That is in many ways a reflection of the degree of seriousness of what we've been seeing in the last few days."
 
She said there was a "political element" to declaring a state of emergency.
 
The forest fires have so far destroyed 
about 500 homes [GALLO/GETTY] 
"There has been a lot of criticism about the government's handling of this and this is in some ways an attempt to give themselves a bit of breathing space - it makes it very difficult for opposition parties to turn this into a political issue."
 
The government, which faces snap elections on September 16, has been criticised for reacting too slowly to forest fires in the past and the recent blazes have already election campaigns.
 
"If they had any self respect, all politicians would resign. There is no state and they are all absent," said a resident in the village of Haria in the Peloponnese.
 
Politicians interrupted their campaigning because of the fires and flags flew at half mast for three days of mourning.
 
Itano said: "This is certainly something that is going to be on the political agenda, but I think right now the government would like to focus on fighting the fires rather than fighting the political storm around them."
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