Athens launches arsonists hunt

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Greek authorities launched a hunt on Monday for arsonists suspected of setting several of the forest fires that have left more than 60 people dead and gutted about 100 villages in south-west Greece.

Fires still raged out of control on Monday on the island of Evia and in the Peloponnese, where an estimated 130,000 acres (526 sq km) of forest and farmland have already been burned.

Greek fire-fighting teams, assisted by more than 30 water-bombing aircraft provided by other European Union member states and Israel, struggled to douse fires that had been reignited by high winds.

Radio and television stations continued to broadcast appeals for help made by mobile phone from Peloponnesian villages under threat from fires.

Byron Polydoras, the public order minister, said Greece’s anti-terrorist unit and intelligence service were working with police investigating how more than 150 fires had started at the weekend. He said yesterday: “We have witness statements, evidence and indications that all relate to arson.”

The move to find alleged fire-raisers came as the conservative government, which called a snap parliamentary election for September 16, tried to fend off criticism over a poorly co-ordinated fire-fighting effort.

Costas Karamanlis, the prime minister, has announ­ced generous financial assistance for people affected, including tax relief for the next six months, cash hand-outs and subsidies to repair fire-damaged property. Political campaigning has been banned for the next three days, while Greece mourns the fire victims.

Political analysts and environmental groups dismissed speculation of an organised arson campaign aimed at upsetting the conservatives’ re-election campaign. However, forestry service officials believe that arson is the cause of most forest fires.

“You could say that sparks from electricity pylons cause about 20 per cent of fires and human error another 20 per cent. The remainder are set deliberately, usually to clear land for development,” said a recently retired official.

While Greece requires burned forest areas to be immediately replanted, devel­opers have few problems in finding a way round the law. Burned areas are re-classified by local officials as farmland that can be sold for development.

“Because of the lack of political will to implement the law, it’s easy to build on forest land,” said Theodota Nantsou, policy co-ordinator in Greece for WWF, the conservation agency. “Ahead of an election, for example, thousands of illegal buildings suddenly become legal.”

Fast-growing demand for second homes, driven by north Europeans as well as Greeks, has increased pressure for development of forests, especially in the Peloponnese and near Athens.

Alexia Papadakis, a real estate agent, said the island of Evia is a prime target for developers because of its proximity to Athens and improved transport connections. “Sadly, it’s no surprise that there is a big fire on Evia,” she said.

Greece’s next government would come under pressure to complete a much-delayed land registry, establish a separate registry of forest areas, and strengthen the forestry service, Ms Nantsou said. “As a tourist country Greece needs year-round fire-prevention measures,” she said.

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