Villagers evacuated as forest fire spreads near Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) – People were evacuated from two villages west of Athens on Monday as firefighters battled a new blaze in a forested area that was devastated by flames last week.

Authorities ordered the protective clearance of the villages of Vilia and Profitis Ιlias, about 50 km (30 miles) from the Greek capital, as strong winds fanned the blaze. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

More than 500 wildfires have broken out across Greece since the beginning of August, ravaging swathes of forest and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.

The biggest one, on the island of Evia near Athens, burned for days before it was contained.

Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and other countries across the Mediterranean region have seen some of their highest temperatures in decades this summer.

A total of 85 firefighters, 13 helicopters and eight water bombing planes were sent in to contain the wildfire west of Athens on Monday, a fire brigade official said.

More than 9,000 hectares of thick pine forest were burned in the same area last week.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Greek firefighters battle growing forest blaze near Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek firefighters on Wednesday battled a wildfire raging through one of the last remaining pine forests near Athens and said that homes could be at risk.

More than 500 wildfires have broken out in recent weeks across the country, ravaging swathes of forest and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.

“Τhe flames are huge. I do not know what will happen, the fire is approaching homes,” Lefteris Kosmopoulos, deputy local governor of the Western Attica region, told state TV ERT.

Buses were on standby in Vilia, about 50 km (30 miles) from Athens, to evacuate residents if needed, as strong winds fanned a fire that started on Monday but had seemed under control. About a dozen smaller villages have been evacuated since Monday.

About 400 firefighters, assisted by additional firefighters from Poland, 15 helicopters and six firefighting planes, were dispatched to the area.

The biggest fire of the past few weeks, on the island of Evia near the capital, burned for days before being contained, ravaging swathes of forest in the north of the island.

Like other countries across the Mediterranean region including Turkey and Tunisia, Greece has seen some of its highest temperatures in decades this summer.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Gareth Jones)

Wildfire engulfs houses in suburbs of Athens

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) -Children were evacuated from a Greek summer camp and residents fled their homes on Tuesday as a wildfire raged uncontrolled on the outskirts of Athens in Greece’s worst heatwave in over 30 years.

More than 300 firefighters with 35 vehicles and 10 aircraft battled the blaze in a densely vegetated area in the suburb of Varympopi, on the lower slopes of Mount Parnitha.

The fire engulfed an unknown number of homes, to the sound of explosions. Equestrian clubs let horses loose to flee the fire.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited a fire brigade operations center coordinating efforts to contain the blaze and other fires, in the Peloponnese Peninsula and on the islands of Evia and Kos.

“All available means and resources have been deployed in the fight on multiple fronts,” his office said in a statement. “In these difficult times, the priority is to protect human lives.”

About 80 children had to leave the summer camp and residents were ordered out of their homes in the suburbs of Varympopi, Adames and Thrakomakedones, some 20 km north of central Athens, although some stayed to defend their houses with garden hoses.

“Dozens of homes are being burnt,” Michalis Vrettos, deputy mayor of the Acharnes region, told Open TV as thick plumes of smoke rose over the houses behind him. Four people were taken to hospital with breathing difficulties, local television reported.

In Athens, the power grid operator IPTO said the fire had damaged parts of the grid, posing a major risk to the electricity supply in parts of the metropolitan region.

The fire also disrupted train services and forced authorities to seal off part of a national motorway.

Temperatures of more than 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and high winds have fanned more than 100 wildfires in different areas of Greece in recent days. On Tuesday, some places recorded temperatures of over 46 Celsius (115 Fahrenheit).

Europe is grappling with a summer of extreme weather, from heavy flooding in the north to the severe heatwaves and fires that have engulfed several areas in the Mediterranean region.

Greece’s neighbor, Turkey, was fighting wildfires near some of its most popular tourist resorts for a seventh consecutive day on Tuesday.

(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos, Karolina Tagaris and Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Alison Williams and Kevin Liffey)

Greece faces row over wheelchair pathway at Acropolis

By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS (Reuters) – A new concrete pathway to facilitate wheelchair access to the Acropolis in Athens has fueled a row between authorities aiming to broaden access to Greece’s most famous ancient monuments and critics who say it ruins the classical harmony of the site.

Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras last month demanded the conservative government “stop abusing our cultural heritage,” saying the changes would amount to “changing the landscape” of a world heritage site.

But Culture Minister Lina Mendoni defended the development, which was approved by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS), the body which oversees the Acropolis complex that includes the Parthenon, a 5th century BC temple to the goddess Athena.

“I have seen people in wheelchairs who came up for the first time and felt happy,” Mendoni told reporters during a visit to the site late on Tuesday.

“I think this is something that should also make us particularly happy because to give joy to people is perhaps just as significant as the protection of our cultural goods,” she said.

The Acropolis, a rocky outcrop with an ancient citadel and temple complex, has dominated the city of Athens for more than 3,000 years but reached its high point with the Parthenon, one of the supreme expressions of classical Greek culture.

Now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, it attracts thousands of visitors a day in peak periods, most of whom climb the 160 meter hill on foot and wander among the monuments on uneven stone paths worn smooth over hundreds of years.

The new walkway, a grey concrete track, is laid over a synthetic membrane that protects the ancient stones underneath and permits easy removal, said architect Manolis Korres, who is heading the project and has been doing restoration work on the Acropolis since 1975.

It was opened to the public in March, replacing an older walkway from the 1970s which had worn away over the years.

As well as improving wheelchair access, other changes include a new elevator and golf carts with plans for tactile mobile models to allow blind people a fuller experience of the monuments.

“I still think the Acropolis is very beautiful,” said Michael Kirk, from the United States. “I don’t think it’s hurt the Acropolis at all.”

(Reporting by Deborah Kyvikosaios; Editing by James Mackenzie and Jane Wardell)

Greek premier orders full lockdown in Athens after surge in coronavirus cases

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday announced a full lockdown in the capital Athens and the surrounding region to curb a resurgence in coronavirus cases and ease pressure on badly stretched health services.

The new restrictions in the Athens region, where half of Greece’s population of 11 million lives, include closing non-essential shops and schools from Feb. 11 until the end of the month, Mitsotakis said in a televised address.

“I will not hide: In the next two months, restrictions may be imposed and lifted depending on the level of alarm,” he said after chairing an emergency meeting with ministers and health experts. “But this is also the last mile towards freedom.”

Authorities registered 1,526 infections on Tuesday, more than double the number recorded a day earlier – half of them in the wider Athens area, with COVID-19 related deaths reaching 6,017 since the coronavirus was first detected.

Greece, which has fared relatively better than others in Europe during the pandemic, was forced to impose a partial lockdown in November after infections began climbing, threatening to overwhelm a health system badly weakened by a decade-long financial crisis.

It has since eased restrictions on the retail sector to help struggling businesses. But Mitsotakis said a fresh rise in hospital admissions in Athens and the detection of more contagious variants of the coronavirus have alarmed authorities.

Greece has administered more than 400,000 inoculations so far with the Pfizer/BionTech and Moderna vaccines and is due to start vaccinating people aged 60-64 with the AstraZeneca shots on Feb. 15.

Mitsotakis said vaccinations will soon reach 500,000 and the most vulnerable will be protected by the end of spring, when the government hopes the vital tourism sector will be able to open.

“We will be much better from April,” he said.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Alison Williams and Grant McCool)

Rights groups attack Greece on asylum plan, PM says burden is heavy

Rights groups attack Greece on asylum plan, PM says burden is heavy
By Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos

ATHENS (Reuters) – Human rights groups urged Greece on Tuesday to scrap plans they say will restrict access to protection for asylum seekers as the government said the burden of dealing with an influx of migrants was getting too heavy to bear.

Athens is currently struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee arrivals since 2015, when more than a million people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece.

The conservative government has proposed new legislation that shortens the asylum process by cutting out some options for appeal and makes it easier to deport those rejected.

But aid groups say the draft legislation would make it easier to detain asylum seekers for longer periods, and includes numerous procedural changes that would impede access to a fair asylum process and compromise the right of appeal.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Greece joined United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and a spate of other groups in a chorus of disapproval on Tuesday over the changes.

“The bill is a naked attempt to block access to protection and increase deportations in the face of the recent increase in arrivals,” said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at HRW.

Amnesty said the bill was a rushed attempt and would be to the detriment of those it purports to protect. Its executive director in Greece, Gabriel Sakellaridis, said the bill was a reflection of a growing ‘toxic’ climate.

“The toxicity in public narrative …and the cultivation of a xenophobic climate identifying people coming to our country as ‘invaders’ is an exceptionally negative development,” he said.

Greece has repeatedly called for a cohesive policy from its European Union partners for an equitable distribution of challenges from the refugee and migration crisis.

“One country alone cannot carry the problems of three continents on its shoulders,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a conference in Athens.

“I’ll be frank. My country is, particularly in the past few months, experiencing an influx of refugees disproportionate to its size.”

His conservative government, which came to power in July, has blamed the former leftist administration for being soft on migration, leaving a backlog of thousands stranded in camps while they exhaust options for seeking protection.

The government has vowed to streamline what it sees as a lengthy asylum process and facilitate the deportation of rejected asylum seekers. It has also made a point to highlight most of the newcomers are ‘economic migrants’.

The bill on reforming the asylum process is due for discussion in parliament this week.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, the largest number in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

Many are in cramped camps on Greek islands near the Turkish coast, where aid groups say conditions are dire.

(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou, Editing by Gareth Jones and Deepa Babington)

Fire resurges on Greece’s Evia, challenges firefighters

A firefighting plane makes a water drop as a wildfire burns near the village of Stavros on the island of Evia, Greece, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Aircraft and firefighters on the ground fought a blaze that burned large tracts of pristine pine forest on the Greek island of Evia on Wednesday as the wildfire flared up again at different spots.

A state of emergency has been declared in regions of the densely forested island east of Athens, after the blaze broke out on Tuesday, fanned by strong winds and high temperatures.

The wildfire had prompted the evacuation of villages and spurred an appeal for help from elsewhere in Europe.

Italy sent two aircraft after an appeal for airborne firefighting equipment from Greek authorities. Although conditions had improved by Wednesday morning, new blazes continued to challenge firefighting efforts.

Water dumping by specially equipped aircraft started at first light. “It is a difficult fire, that’s the reality … there is no danger to human life and that is what is important,” Kostas Bakoyannis, the regional governor for central Greece, told Skai TV.

Fire officials said four villages and hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution on Tuesday and one firefighter was hospitalized after suffering burns.

“The situation in Evia was very difficult and remains difficult,” Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s aid commissioner, said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Drawing upon his experience from other forest fires around Europe, Stylianides said he was impressed at the coordination shown among authorities dealing with the emergency, calling firefighters heroes.

“We managed to protect lives and to save people’s property,” Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said.

Greece has bitter memories of a horrific blaze that tore through the seaside town of Mati near Athens in July 2018, killing 102 people in a matter of hours. Authorities were accused then of poor coordination and a slow response.

Mitsotakis, a conservative elected last month, interrupted his holiday on Crete to return to Athens where he was briefed on the situation.

Television images showed flames and plumes of black smoke on mountainsides carpeted in pine. State television said about 28,000 hectares of pine forest was turned to ashes. The smoke was also captured by Copernicus EU satellite imagery.

Copernicus, the European Union’s eyes on earth with two Sentinel-3 satellites in orbit, said it had activated its emergency management service to assist in tracking the wildfire.

Greece often faces wildfires during its dry summer months, and authorities have warned of the high risk of blazes this week. Environmental campaigners see an increasing number of wildfires around the world as a symptom of climate change.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Larry King and Stephen Powell)

Greece to tear down illegal buildings after killer blaze

FILE PHOTO: A local walks on a burnt slope following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

By Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece will demolish thousands of illegal buildings in response to the death of dozens of people who were unable to escape a maze of poorly planned streets in the country’s worst wildfire disaster.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose government has been accused of a slow response, said Greece must no longer allow illegal construction that has been common for decades in a country dogged by bureaucracy and corruption.

The demolition of 3,200 buildings will start immediately in the Attica region, which includes the capital Athens, he said.

“The chaos of unruly construction, which threatens human lives, can no longer be tolerated,” Tsipras said in a speech in the town of Lavrio, down the coast from Mati where at least 91 people died in the blaze on July 23.

Unlicensed constructions are a common feature of the Greek landscape where they even have a name: “afthereta”, or “arbitrary” buildings.

Built with apparent impunity, many are rubber stamped later under general amnesties, announced by successive governments in what critics say is a crude but effective way to wield power and gain votes.

Authorities say there were dozens of such buildings in Mati, where people were trapped, with routes to the coast walled off — illegal under Greek law.

Tsipras said anyone in the process of building unlicensed constructions would be compelled to demolish them.

The disaster has had political repercussions. The head of the civil protection department resigned on Monday, a day after the government replaced the chiefs of the police and the fire brigade.

The civil protection minister resigned on Friday after saying he believed there had been few flaws with the way emergency services tackled the blaze, fueled by winds blowing at 120 km (70 miles) an hour.

Tsipras’s administration has rejected opposition claims that authorities were napping on the job, saying unlicensed building had thrived under previous governments.

“I would have expected at least the tiniest bit of self-criticism from those who, along with their families, ran the country for more than four decades – not two, three or five years,” said Tsipras, a leftist politician elected in 2015.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, head of the main opposition New Democracy Party, is son of Constantine Mitsotakis, a former prime minister. Fofi Gennimata, head of the small Socialist party which was also dominant for years, is the daughter of a key figure in that party.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

How do you sleep? After fire kills scores, Greece sees political recriminations

People light candles outside the parliament building to commemorate the victims of a wildfire that left at least 91 dead, in Athens, Greece, July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Balta

By Michele Kambas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused the opposition on Tuesday of exploiting one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters for saying ministers should resign over the deaths of at least 91 people in a fire.

Greece has been stunned by the blaze which swiftly gutted the town of Mati east of Athens on July 23. Scores more people were injured and the death toll could still rise. There have since been recriminations over whether an evacuation order was issued and whether rescue services responded in a timely manner.

People light candles outside the parliament building to commemorate the victims of a wildfire that left at least 91 dead, in Athens, Greece, July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Bal

People light candles outside the parliament building to commemorate the victims of a wildfire that left at least 91 dead, in Athens, Greece, July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

“I really wonder how some people … can sleep today, and continue content in exercising their duties,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, head of the Conservative New Democracy party, told a news conference.

“When someone undertakes political responsibility it should be accompanied by an act, and resignation is an act of personal responsibility,” said Mitsotakis, whose party is leading in opinion polls.

Though Mitsotakis did not name the prime minister, the comments appeared to be aimed at Tsipras, who has said he accepted full political responsibility for the disaster.

The prime minister’s office accused Mitsotakis of trying to “take advantage of dozens of citizens’ pain and loss”.

“Human lives cannot become an object of political exploitation,” Tsipras’s office said in a statement. “Citizens will judge those who judge.”

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at the flames as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at the flames as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Mitsotakis said those responsible for coordinating the fire response, including the civil protection and interior ministers and the fire brigade chief, should resign.

He also appeared to criticize Tsipras for failing to visit the scene of the disaster sooner. Tsipras traveled to the site on Monday a week after the blaze. Another government minister who visited earlier had a heated exchange with survivors on whether aid was sent in a timely manner.

“Anger, and sympathizing with another’s pain is something deeply personal,” Mitsotakis said. “But public figures have no right to hide during a crisis. (A leader) has an obligation to take a position, and be next to people in trying times.”

Tsipras has vowed to hold a thorough inquiry into how hundreds of people were left trapped by flames. He has pledged a series of changes, including a crackdown on unlicensed construction which is thought to have worsened the fire and blocked off escape routes for residents fleeing toward the sea.

(Reporting By Michele Kambas; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)

Greek PM visits wildfire-stricken town after criticism

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks with a firefighter officer as he visits the village of Mati, following a wildfire near Athens, Greece, July 30, 2018. Greek Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Costas Pitas and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met survivors of a wildfire that killed at least 91 people during his first visit to the town of Mati on Monday, after facing criticism for the government’s response to the blaze.

Fires began a week ago in the coastal resort, which is 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens, and Tsipras has been attacked by opposition parties for the government’s handling of the disaster, which also left dozens injured.

Tsipras has accepted full political responsibility and pledged a series of changes, including a crackdown on illegal and haphazard construction that is thought to have worsened the blaze.

FILE PHOTO: A burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

He spent around an hour in the area and met locals, firefighters and police officers, his office said in a statement.

“Today I visited the place of tragedy,” Tsipras tweeted.

“(I have) untold grief but also immense respect for those who fought an uneven battle with the flames,” he said.

A total of 25 people are still missing and 28 bodies have yet to be identified, the fire brigade said on Sunday.

Tsipras’ visit comes a week after the disaster and aides said that he had been busy coordinating the response from Athens. His coalition partner went to Mati on Thursday and was shouted at by survivors.

As rescue crews still hunt for those unaccounted for, residents were trying to salvage what they can from the disaster.

“I can’t believe that it took a lifetime to build this and within 10 minutes nothing was left,” 49-year old Konstantinos Gkikas told Reuters. “It’s unbelievable.”

Out of the nearly 2,600 buildings inspected in fire-stricken areas so far, half are intact, 25 percent need to be demolished and the rest can be repaired, the infrastructure ministry said on Monday.

A Greek citizen filed a lawsuit on Monday against the government, the municipal and regional authorities and anybody else found to be involved in the disaster.

Greeks were expected to gather outside parliament to light candles in memory of those who lost their lives later on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Reuters Television; Writing by Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)