57 Confirmed Dead, 7 Detained In Greek Wildfires

August 25, 2007

Forest fires sweeping uncontrolled across southern Greece have killed 57 people, some found Saturday in the charred homes of mountain villages reached too late by rescue crews hampered by powerful winds.

Police on Saturday detained seven men with arson and multiple counts of homicide in connection with the deadly fires that are now burning across half of the country, the fire department said.

Many firefighters had told CNN they are suspicious of the fire's source, given several witness reports that the blazes cropped up simultaneously along a 20-kilometer (12 mile) front of lush greenery in southern Greece.

The deadliest fire was in the western Peloponnese region of southern Greece, where at least 38 people were killed in mountain villages near the town Zaharo, the fire department said. A massive fire whipped by strong winds continued to burn out of control.

"This is a day of national mourning," said Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who visited the afflicted areas and chaired an emergency Cabinet meeting. "We are fighting against heavy odds, on many fronts and under particularly tough conditions."

Hot, dry winds gusting to gale force were expected to continue Saturday before abating in the evening. The winds frequently prevented firefighting planes from taking off, leaving mainly ground forces to fight the flames in the southern Peloponnese, occasionally helped by helicopters.

Since Friday morning, more than 170 blazes have raged from the western Ionian islands to Ioannina in northwest Greece, and down to the south. A recent three-day heat wave, in which temperatures have touched 104 Fahrenheit, has left forests and shrubland parched.

With early elections just three weeks away, the devastating fires are certain to become a political issue. The government has come under criticism for its response to previous fires, which killed 10 people.

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