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Fire victims' relatives sue Greek officials for negligent manslaughter

Fire victims' relatives sue Greek officials for negligent manslaughter
A woman walks towards a beach in Rafina, east of Athens, on Wednesday, 10 days after deadly wildfires blackened the seaside resort. (Thanassis Stavrakis / AP)

The relatives of two people killed by Greece's deadliest wildfire in decades filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Greek officials for their response to the disaster, accusing them of negligent manslaughter and felony counts of exposing people to danger.

The victims, both teachers who were 70 and 73 years old, were trapped by flames as they attempted to flee their homes in Neos Voutzas, a seaside neighborhood near the worst-affected area of Mati, a resort area near Athens that was hit hardest in the wildfire. Their burned bodies were found a day later.

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Around 90 people are believed to have died in the July 23 wildfire that, fanned by gale-force winds, decimated Greek seaside resort areas. A final death toll is pending as coroners work to identify the remains.

The fire department, which has been issuing the official death toll, said Wednesday night that the bodies of 81 people had been identified. Four more fire victims died in the hospital, and one person remained unaccounted for, it said.

The wife and daughter of the 70-year-old man and the son of the 73-year-old woman filed their lawsuit against Greece's civil protection general secretary, the local regional governor, a local mayor and several officials in the regional civil protection office and in the fire and police departments.

The lawsuit states the man tried to flee but couldn't open the door to his garage because the electricity had failed. He and the woman, who was his tenant, then apparently tried to escape on foot. Their bodies were found some 300-400 yards from their building.

Separately, the government said it would move ahead with the demolition of illegally constructed buildings in woodland and coastal areas. Officials have blamed illegal construction, among other factors, for contributing to the high death toll in Mati, where there are many narrow dead-end streets.

Several areas around Athens initially developed without building permits. Successive governments allowed unauthorized dwellings and buildings to connect to utilities if the owners paid fines and, more recently, property taxes.

Environment Minister Giorgos Stathakis told a news conference Wednesday that there were 2,500 illegally constructed buildings in woodland areas and 700 on beaches in the wider Athens area. Asked specifically about the fire-devastated Mati area, he said only "about 50%" of the buildings there were legal.

Also Wednesday, Greek authorities arrested a 35-year-old Greek man on suspicion of intentionally setting five fires in the countryside around Marathon, north of Mati, none of which was related to the Mati fire.

The five blazes, which broke out between July 26 and July 31, were all safely extinguished. The suspect was to be formally charged with arson later Wednesday, the fire service said.

Authorities are still investigating what caused the deadly Mati fire. Although officials had initially said that arson was suspected, there is increasing suspicion the blaze might have been caused by negligence.

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