Greece fire threatens inhabited areas in Athens and near Marathon

Associated Press

An easing of gale-force winds early today offered hard-pressed Greek firefighters a brief respite after wildfires raged unchecked for two days north of Athens, burning houses and swaths of forest while forcing thousands to flee.

But fire brigade officials cautioned that the fires still threatened inhabited areas on the capital's northern fringes, the eastern coastal town of Nea Makri and nearby Marathon -- site of one of history's most famous battlegrounds.

"There are fewer hazardous points," fire brigade spokesman Yiannis Kappakis said. "But the blaze is still developing."

Several houses were gutted, but there were no reports of deaths or injuries. There was tremendous damage to the countryside, however, with thousands of hectares of forest wiped out.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the fire -- one of more than 90 that broke out across Greece over the weekend -- was hard to tame.

"The situation remains very difficult," he said after a fire brigade briefing. "The enormous effort will continue on all fronts throughout the night."

In Nea Makri, south of Marathon, authorities said a blaze stretching for 2 1/2 miles was tearing down a hillside toward houses, and a dozen nuns were evacuated from a nearby Christian Orthodox convent.

"The situation is tragic right now, there's a huge fire coming our way," Nea Makri Mayor Iordanis Loizos said. "There is nothing we can do . . . but wait for the [water-dropping] planes at dawn."

The aircraft were to resume operations at first light today, assisted by aircraft from France, Italy and Cyprus. More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers are fighting the blaze on the ground.

Officials have not said what started the fire. Hundreds of forest blazes ravage Greece every summer and many are set intentionally -- often by unscrupulous land developers or farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

In many afflicted areas, despairing residents pleaded for firefighters and equipment that were nowhere to be seen.

On Sunday, thousands of residents of Athens' northern outskirts evacuated, fleeing in cars or on foot. The fire destroyed several houses.

Six major fires were burning early today across Greece. The Athens blaze started north of Marathon plain and spread over Mt. Penteli, on the city's northern boundary, threatening outlying suburbs.

The blaze grew fastest near Marathon, from which the foot race takes its name, born from a legendary run after the 490 BC Athenian victory over a Persian army.

A guard at the nearby Museum of Marathon said the fire at one point came within 50 yards of the building, whose exhibits include weapons and skeletons from the battle. But the fire's main front was moving south toward Nea Makri.

The fire also threatened the ancient fortress town of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

The mayor of Marathon said he had been "begging the government to send over planes and helicopters" to no avail. "There are only two fire engines here; three houses are already on fire and we are just watching helplessly," Mayor Spyros Zagaris told Greek TV.

Zagaris was among several local leaders who accused the government of having no plan to fight the fire.

Finance Minister Yiannis Papathanassiou responded: "This is not the time for criticism under these tragic conditions. We are fighting a difficult fight."

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