Turkey plans to return one million Syrians, warns of new migrant wave in Europe

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, September 5, 2019. Murat Kula/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Nevzat Devranoglu and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey plans to resettle 1 million refugees in northern Syria and may reopen the route for migrants into Europe if it does not receive adequate international support for the plan, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, controls parts of north Syria where it says 350,000 Syrians have already returned. It is setting up a “safe zone” with the United States in the northeast where Erdogan said many more could be moved.

“Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

The comments come as Turkey mounts pressure on Washington for further concessions on the depth and oversight of the planned safe zone in the northeast, and as it comes under increasing pressure in Syria’s northwest Idlib region where a Russian-backed government offensive has pressed north.

Only a small minority of Syrians in Turkey are from the northern strip roughly proposed for re-settlement, according to Turkish government data.

“We are saying we should form such a safe zone that we, as Turkey, can build towns here in lieu of the tent cities here. Let’s carry them to the safe zones there,” Erdogan said

“Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humanitarian living conditions.”

“This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates,” Erdogan said. “Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”

RENEWED CONFLICT

Under a deal agreed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, Ankara agreed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for billions of euros in aid.

However, the number of migrant arrivals in neighboring Greece spiked last month. A week ago, more than a dozen migrant boats carrying 600 people arrived, the first simultaneous arrival of its kind in three years.

Last month, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said only 17% of refugees in Turkey hail from northeast regions controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. Of that region, the proposed safe zone would cover only a fraction.

Last week, senior Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said it is necessary to resettle refugees in their home towns. “Settling hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who are from outside our areas, here would be unacceptable,” he said of the northeast.

In Idlib, where Turkey has troops and where Ankara in 2017 agreed with Moscow and Tehran to reduce fighting, months of renewed conflict intensified in recent weeks and raised prospects of another wave of refugees at Turkey’s borders.

After a truce collapsed in early August, the Russian-backed Syrian army has gained significant ground against rebel forces, some of whom are backed by Turkey.

Nicholas Danforth, Istanbul-based senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said warning about refugees in the context of the safe zone allows Erdogan to pressure both Europe and the United States at once.

“What seems clear is that it would be impossible to settle that many refugees in any zone achieved through negotiations with the United States and the YPG,” he said.

“This looks like an attempt to build pressure for more U.S. concessions on the safe zone, where some refugees could then be resettled for purposes of domestic (Turkish) public relations.”

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)

Iran tanker heads to Greece after release, Iran warns U.S against seizure attempt

FILE PHOTO - Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, sails after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

DUBAI (Reuters) – An Iranian tanker sailed through the Mediterranean toward Greece on Monday after it was released from detention off Gibraltar, and Tehran said that any at U.S. move to seize the vessel again would have “heavy consequences”.

The Grace 1, renamed the Adrian Darya 1, left anchorage off Gibraltar about 11 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Sunday. Refinitiv ship tracking data showed on Monday that the vessel was heading to Kalamata in Greece and was scheduled to arrive next Sunday at 0000 GMT.

The seizure of the tanker by British Royal Marines near Gibraltar in July 4 on suspicion of carrying oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions led to a weeks-long stand-off between Tehran and the West. It also heightened tensions on international oil shipping routes through the Gulf.

Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, lifted the detention order on Thursday but the next day a federal court in Washington issued a warrant for the seizure of the tanker, the oil it carries and nearly $1 million.

FILE PHOTO - A crew member raises the Iranian flag on Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, as it sits anchored after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

FILE PHOTO – A crew member raises the Iranian flag on Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, as it sits anchored after the Supreme Court of the British territory lifted its detention order, in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain, August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Gibraltar said on Sunday it could not comply with that request because it was bound by EU law. Washington wanted to detain the tanker on the grounds that it had links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which it has designated a terrorist organization.

“We are happy this ordeal has ended and I hope this will lead to less escalation,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said while visiting Finland.

He also said the U.S. warrant had no legal basis and was politically motivated to “make more escalation”.

Greek authorities had no immediate comment on the situation.

Iran said on Monday any U.S. attempt to seize the tanker would have “heavy consequences”.

Asked whether the United States could renew its seizure request after the tanker sailed from Gibraltar, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “Such an action, and even the talk of it … would endanger shipping safety in open seas.”

“Iran has issued the necessary warnings through official channels, especially the Swiss embassy, to American officials not to commit such an error because it would have heavy consequences,” Mousavi said in remarks broadcast on state television.

Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

The Adrian Darya 1, which was re-flagged to Iran after being de-listed by Panama on May 29, was fully laden and carrying about 2 million barrels of oil, Refinitiv data showed. The cargo was valued at tens of millions of dollars.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May last year, while the European Union is still part of the accord, which allows Tehran to sell its oil.

Washington wants to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero and has re-imposed U.S. sanctions which place heavy penalties on any breaches even for non-U.S. citizens and companies, including asset freezes and being cut off from the U.S. financial system.

While EU regulations still allow for companies and citizens in the bloc to trade with Iran, falling foul of U.S. sanctions has meant most banks are unwilling to process even authorized transactions such as for food and medicine, finance sources say.

This is likely to be the first major foreign policy challenge for Greece’s new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis since he took office in July if the vessel enters Greek territorial waters.

Zarif said Iran could not reveal where the oil would go.

“Because of US sanctions we cannot be very transparent with the destination,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Greek coastguard said they had no formal information the vessel is heading to Kalamata and are monitoring the matter.

TANKER HELD BY IRAN

Separately, a senior Iranian lawmaker said a crisis in Iran’s ties with Britain, which included Tehran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker last month, would not be over until the tanker reached its destination.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on July 19 seized the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz waterway for alleged marine violations, two weeks after the Grace 1 was commandeered.

“Until the Iranian oil tanker arrives at its destination the British must help end the crisis,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of parliament’s national security and foreign affairs committee, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

“The crisis with Britain is not over. Britain has the primary responsibility for ending the oil tanker crisis,” Falahatpisheh said.

Mousavi said that Tehran was waiting for a court decision on alleged maritime violations by the Stena Impero and he hoped the procedures would be completed as soon as possible.

The head of Iran’s judiciary Ebrahim Raisi also said “Iran should claim damages…to teach a lesson to those who acted against international laws and regulations by seizing the tanker”.

Iran has denied its tanker was ever headed to Syria, a close ally of Tehran.

The two vessels have since become pawns in a bigger game, feeding into wider hostilities since the United States pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Parisa Hafezi, Lisa Barrington, Anna Ringstrom in Helsinki Jonathan Saul in London, George Georgiopoulos in Athens and Harshith Aranya in Bengaluru; Editing by Angus MacSwan/William Maclean)

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)

Turkey breaks up smuggling ring that brought thousands of migrants to Europe

FILE PHOTO: Migrants in a dinghy paddle their way on the Mediterranean Sea to attempt crossing to the Greek island of Kos, as a Turkish Coast Guard ship patrols off the shores off Bodrum, Turkey, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police said on Wednesday they had detained the leaders of what they called Europe’s biggest people-smuggling ring, which helped thousands of irregular immigrants reach Europe from the Middle East.

Twenty people, including ringleader Akbar Omar Tawfeeq, were detained in operations in four Turkish provinces after a year-long investigation into the organization, Istanbul police said.

The network mainly helped Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian nationals cross into European countries from Turkey by land and sea, police said, adding that the group had also worked with other smuggling groups in Ukraine, Italy and Greece.

As part of the operations, police detained 569 irregular immigrants and seized six vehicles and six boats, they said in a statement. The smuggling group, whose leaders are mainly from northern Iraq, earned an average 2 million euros annually.

Video footage released by police showed special operations police breaking down the door of the suspects’ residence and seizing phones, drugs and digital material.

More than a million migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, arrived in the European Union in 2015. Turkey was one of the main launch points for the dangerous sea leg of their journey, on which thousands died.

Numbers declined sharply in the following year when Turkey, in exchange for 3 billion euros in European Union aid and a promise to ease visa restrictions for Turks, began to exert more control on migrants trying to cross to Europe via its territory.

Overall Mediterranean arrivals to the European Union, including migrants making the longer and more perilous crossing from north Africa to Italy, stood at 172,301 in 2017, down from 362,753 in 2016 and 1,015,078 in 2015, according to U.N. data.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Frances Kerry)

For asylum-seekers on Greece’s Lesbos, life ‘is so bad here’

Migrants wash their clothes and fill bottles with water at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Hundreds of asylum-seekers stranded on Greece’s Lesbos island are living in makeshift tents in a field overrun by garbage, without electricity or running water.

Moria, Greece’s biggest migrant camp in a former military base on the island, is holding 9,000 people, nearly three times its capacity, according to the latest government data.

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A view of the Moria camp for refugees and migrants and a makeshift camp set next to Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Aerial footage obtained by Reuters shows several dozen tents have spilled over into an adjacent olive grove, where hundreds of asylum-seekers, most of them Afghan, live in grim conditions.

Young children with muddied faces play among piles of rubbish and women wash clothes and plates in buckets of murky water. Others break off tree branches to shelter their tents from the elements.

“The situation is so bad here,” said Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker who arrived in Greece with his three children in August. “Night is so bad … my children cannot go to the toilet because everywhere it is dark here and we are in a forest.”

Greece has said it will move 2,000 asylum-seekers from the island to the mainland by the end of the month as aid groups increased pressure on the government to ease the overcrowding.

A local governor threatened to shut Moria down next month unless authorities clean up what health inspectors described as “uncontrollable amounts of waste.”

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

A tent is illuminated at a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

In Athens on Wednesday, the European Union’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said it was an EU “priority to create the best possible conditions on the islands”.

Small numbers of migrant boats arrive on Lesbos and other Greek islands near Turkey every week, though they are a fraction of the nearly 1 million people who landed in Greece in 2015.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greece must urgently move vulnerable migrants from island camp

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria shout slogans in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste”.

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said.

“It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticized as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticized Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Situation at ‘boiling point’ at refugee center on Greek island: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria stand in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency urged Greece on Friday to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception center were “reaching boiling point”.

Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.

Those three groups still comprise more than 70 percent of those arriving in Greece, and typically have high recognition rates for their asylum claims, but the overall flow is far less than in previous years, UNHCR said.

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August, this failed to ease pressure as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month, it said.

“The situation is reaching boiling point at the Moria reception identification center on Lesbos, where more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a Geneva briefing.

Some have been there for over six months and one quarter are children, he said. A reception center on Samos island holds 2,700, nearly four times the number it was designed for, while centers on Chios and Kos are at close to double their capacity.

“We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care,” he said.

Yaxley could not confirm aid agency reports of possible suicide attempts among youth at the centers but said:

“There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment.”

The Greek government has made previous commitments to transfer people to shelters on the mainland, and has received European Union funding for it, Yaxley said.

But other EU countries must help “frontline states” including Greece, Italy and Spain who receive most of the refugees and migrants, he said, adding:

“The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it’s a question of political will.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Greek PM takes responsibility for wildfire as criticism mounts

Burnt cars are seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took political responsibility on Friday for a wildfire that killed at least 87 people and led to opposition accusations that the government failed to protect lives.

Tsipras’ opponents went on the offensive on Friday as three days of mourning ended, accusing the government of failing to apologize for the disaster.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Seeking to deflect public anger, Tsipras told ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.

“I have called you here today first of all to take full political responsibility for this tragedy in front of my cabinet and the Greek people,” he said.

“I won’t hide that I am overwhelmed by mixed feelings right now … Pain, devastation for the human lives unexpectedly and unfairly lost. But also anguish at whether we acted correctly in everything we did.”

Tsipras’ contrition comes after the main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard.

“This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory, which hit the town of Mati, some 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Monday, heckled Tsipras’ coalition partner, saying they had been left to fend for themselves.

Pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to finally extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debit crisis and reap the political benefits.

Tsipras now faces questions over how so many got trapped in the fire as the death toll could rise still further.

Tsipras had not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said.

“NO MORE TRAGEDIES”

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs.

But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and had wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for those still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed by the blaze.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Tsipras promised a national plan to tackle decades of unauthorized construction and to reform and upgrade the Civil Protection Service “to guarantee … that there will be no more tragedies”.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati https://tmsnrt.rs/2K6N3Qc, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; writing by Angeliki Koutantou and Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

No apology, no resignation: pressure grows on Greek government over fire deaths

Aristides Katsaros' burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou

MATI, Greece (Reuters) – Greece’s opposition accused the government on Friday of arrogance and an utter failure to protect lives in responding to a devastating wildfire as questions remained unanswered over how at least 86 people died in the town of Mati.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory already heckled a government minister when he visited the scene less than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Thursday.

But on Friday an official three days of mourning declared by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ended, and his opponents immediately went on the offensive.

The main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard. “This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

The left-led government defended itself, saying there had been no time to evacuate people because the blaze spread very quickly.

But pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, as the death toll was expected to rise further and the questions on how people got trapped piled up.

Tsipras has not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead. A cabinet meeting was scheduled for 1400 GMT on Friday.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it. “A day after the tragedy, mainly to have my conscience clear and not because of mistakes, I offered my resignation to the prime minister, who told me it’s a time to fight,” Toskas told reporters on Thursday.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said. “They have confessed they let people burn helplessly.”

ONE-OFF PAYMENTS

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs. But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for dozens still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed, and the fire brigade said some closed-up homes had not yet been checked.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems later on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; editing by David Stamp)

‘Left at God’s mercy’: Greeks seek answers as wildfire toll mounts

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

By Renee Maltezou and Alkis Konstantinidis

MATI, Greece (Reuters) – Sorrow became tinged with anger in Greece on Thursday as rescuers searched scorched land and the coastline for survivors, three days after a wildfire destroyed a small town outside Athens and killed at least 83 people.

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Desperate relatives appeared on television to plead for information on those missing, while other residents of Mati asked why authorities had been unable to prevent so many of their neighbors from getting trapped by a wall of flame in streets with no exit route.

“This shouldn’t have happened, people perished for no reason,” a tearful woman shouted at Defence Minister Panos Kammenos as he visited the town and nearby fire-ravaged areas. “You left us at God’s mercy!”

With the toll from Greece’s deadliest wildfire in decades expected to rise further, about 300 firemen and volunteers combed the area for dozens still missing.

One woman was looking for her brother, who had been returning from work when the flames took hold. “My father was the last person to talk to him on Monday evening,” Katerina Hamilothori told Skai TV. “We have had no news at all.”

The cause of the fire is still unclear, and being investigated by an Athens prosecutor who is also reviewing the way it was handled.

Local officials said high and unpredictable winds would have rendered even the best-executed evacuation plan futile, though firefighters told Reuters that some water hydrants in the area were empty.

One theory being examined is that the blaze was started deliberately in three locations at the same time.

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

IDENTIFYING THE DEAD

Outside the coroner’s service in Athens, the mood was grim as relatives of victims arrived to submit information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

“This is a difficult process, more difficult than other mass disasters we have dealt with,” said coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias, adding that the bodies of most of the victims were completely charred.

About 500 homes were destroyed, and the fire brigade said there were closed-up homes that had not yet been checked.

The left-led government announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro payment and a job in the public sector for victims’ spouses and near relatives. But for many, that was not enough to ease the pain.

“A drop in the ocean,” read the front page of newspaper Ta Nea.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati, which lies fewer than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens and was popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic was a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

“The main factor was the wind, its speed and its direction. It should have been looked at earlier,” said World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Greece director Dimitris Karavellas.

“These people should have been ordered out of this area… This is the only thing that could have saved them.”

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by John Stonestreet)