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Greek leaders face criticism in fires

By Jeffrey Stinson and Joanna Kakissis, USA TODAY

ATHENS — The roaring fires that have swept Greece blazed through a fifth day Tuesday, leading to political accusations against the government and calls for vengeance against suspected arsonists.

Maria Papadopoulou, 25, a student in Athens, said prison is too good for anyone who deliberately set any of the hundreds of fires that have burned about a half-million acres since Friday. "Burn him," she said. "Or give him to people whose homes have been burned, and they can decide what to do with him."[RSB: Taking law into own hands.]

MORE:Wildfires bring stories of death, survival

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis' government offered no evidence to back its claim of an orchestrated arson campaign by terrorists — what Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras termed an "asymmetrical threat."

Polydoras said the country's secret service and anti-terrorism squad had joined police in investigating the blazes.

Sixty-four people have been killed since Friday in what Karamanlis has called "a national catastrophe."

According to a tally by the European Forest Fire Information System, a European Commission body, more than 454,000 acres of forests, groves and scrubland were burned from Friday to Sunday. Nikos Charalambidis, director of Greenpeace Greece, estimated that about 500,000 acres — about 1% of the country or about half the size of Rhode Island — have burned since the fires broke out.

Eleven people have been arrested on suspicion of arson since Friday.

"It has to be arson," said Nicos Georgiadis, a forestry expert at the Greek WWF, the conservation group formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund. "I don't know about conspiracies and all of that."

The devastating fires, which stretch from southern Peloponnesus to the northern border with Albania, could threaten Karamanlis' conservative government in parliamentary elections Sept. 13.

George Papandreou, leader of the opposition Socialists, said the government had concocted a terrorist conspiracy theory to deflect attention from its inept response.

He said the government had been "pathetically incompetent."

Yiannis Ragoussis, spokesman for the Socialists, accused the government of "trying to create a Sept. 11-type of climate" to avoid defeat next month.

Mary Bossis, a University of Piraeus professor who has studied Greece's anti-terror law, said the government has failed to produce proof of a plot to torch the country.

"That's a very serious charge," she said. "But where's the evidence? Where is the enemy?"

In an editorial, the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia accused Greek officials of fabricating the terror threat.

"The government must immediately drop these unacceptable scenarios that show desperation and panic," the editorial said.

Television footage and news accounts depicted a rural landscape of charred forests, animals carcasses, melted streetlights and burned husks of buildings.

Dozens of villages in Peloponnesus faced power outages because fire had destroyed electricity poles and distribution stations, according to the Public Power utility.

Hospitals provided temporary shelter for hundreds left homeless. The Health Ministry advised people with respiratory problems to stay indoors to avoid the smoke and ash clouding the air in Athens and other parts of the country.

The government planned to give firefighters bonuses of $3,416. Fire victims should start receiving government compensation funds in the next few days.

In Washington, a Greek-American organization worked with the State Department to organize a relief effort. The American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association also recruited Greek-American firefighters to aid the effort.

Stunned Greeks expressed their fury and frustration, some in anguished criticism of their own society.

"The worst thing is that we will probably not learn anything from this disaster. We will continue to search for arsonists or for anarchists as more fires burn forests and more people die. We will condemn arsonists, the system, our 'criminal society' in order to shirk our responsibilities," commentator P. Mandravelis wrote in the Ekathimerini newspaper.

Twenty-one countries have sent firefighters to help battle the blazes. Others have dispatched equipment, including rescue helicopters and airplanes able to drop chemicals and water to douse the flames. Greece's bitter historic rival, Turkey, has sent a firefighting airplane.

Greece has experienced a severe drought this summer. Dozens of fires, including some set by arsonists, erupted in June and July.

Georgiadis said suspicion has focused on unscrupulous land developers because in the past some have used fires to obtain valuable land around Athens and resort areas on the island of Evia, north of the capital.

Greek law protects the country's forests from development, but there is no national registry of forest land. Burned woodlands are supposed to be replanted, but developers have often been able to move in and build before forestry officials could document claims that would protect the land, Georgiadis said.

The fiercest and biggest blazes are west and south of Athens in mountainous Peloponnesus in farm towns and rural areas where there is little prospect of commercial development. There, farmers often have used fires to clear forest for grazing land or burned brush to plant crops, Greenpeace's Charalambidis said.

Nikolaos Markatos, professor at National Technical University of Athens, said half the wildfires that plague Greece each summer are the work of arsonists.

Markatos said the country could protect itself from catastrophic fires by using a system he designed to put remote sensors in forests. Devices fitted to trees would alert emergency teams and firefighters if temperatures rose to levels that indicated fire.

The system also would help direct pilots dropping loads of water and fire-dousing chemicals, he said.

Contributing: Wire reports

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