The flames somewhat abated after hundreds of firefighters with the help of soldiers, aircraft and helicopters fought to keep the blaze from reaching the international airport.

The fire service said the fire broke out in the Glyka Nera area, some 20km east of Athens, and destroyed at least 100 hectares of pine forest. There were no reports of damage to homes.

Yiannis Kapakis, a spokesman, said fires had been contained on the nearby island of Aegina and at Agios Stephanos, north of Athens.

A warning earlier by meteorologists of a fire risk this year already had the fire brigade on high alert.

Margaritis Mouzas, chief of the civil protection agency, said a drop in winds had helped the firefighters.

"This area is patrolled constantly and the response was immediate ... The forecast was that winds would drop and fortunately this appears to be the case," he said.

Greece is plagued by fires of this kind every year during the summer months, often due to arson.

Arson suspected

About 100 firefighters battled the blaze [AFP]
Giorgos Siokos, the mayor of Glyka Nera, said he believed arsonists started the fire.

"The fire started in broad daylight. I think it was arson," he said. "Land-grabbers have targeted this area many times in the past."

Al Jazeera's Sylvia Lennan reporting in Athens, said smoke billows could be seen high above the Greek countryside a few kilometres from the capital and residents watched helplessly as the fire spread closer to the suburbs.

More than 60 people were killed when forest fires swept through villages in the country's south last year.

Fires last year also ravaged a nature reserve north of Athens and destroyed 200,000 hectares of forest, farmland and olive groves in August alone.

Environmental groups have criticised the authorities for not having an action plan in place, to avoid a similar devastation.