Rescuers search waist-high muddy waters for missing people in typhoon-hit Japan

By Kwiyeon Ha and Kyung Hoon Kim

NAGANO, Japan (Reuters) – Rescue workers waded through muddy, waist-high waters on Monday searching for missing people after one of the worst typhoons to hit Japan in recent history, while rain fell again in some affected areas, stoking fears of further flooding.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said vast areas had been struck by the storm and called for urgent support to those affected.

At least 56 people were killed in the typhoon, which left vast sections of towns in central and eastern Japan under water, with another 15 missing and 211 injured, public broadcaster NHK said.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers and a fleet of helicopters fanned out in the affected areas, officials said.

“There still are many residents who have yet to be accounted for. Our people in uniform are working day and night in search and rescue operations,” Abe told an emergency meeting of ministers.

“Damage has been made in an extremely wide range of areas, and more than 30,000 people are still being forced to remain in the state of evacuation. It is our urgent task to offer meticulous support to those who have been affected.”

Typhoon Hagibis, which means “speed” in the Philippine language Tagalog, made landfall on Japan’s main island of Honshu on Saturday and headed out to sea early on Sunday.

Groups of rescuers wearing goggles and snorkels looked for survivors while making their way in waist-high water in Nagano, central Japan, where the Chikuma River inundated swathes of land. A middle-aged man in Nagano, asked about the situation around his house, told NHK: “It’s just like a lake.”

Yoshinobu Tsuchiya, 69, returned on Monday morning to his home in Nagano city, near where the Chikuma had breached its banks, to find that his first floor had been flooded and that the garden he tended had turned to brown mud.

“So this is what it’s come to,” Tsuchiya sighed to the Nikkei newspaper. “I can’t even imagine when we’ll finish cleaning up. I’m sick of this flood.”

A neighbour in his 60s told the newspaper: “This is just like a tsunami. This is hopeless.”

At a second emergency meeting on Monday, Abe urged ministers to do their utmost to help evacuees return to normal life as soon as possible.

More than 110,000 police officers, firefighters, soldiers and coastguard personnel, as well as some 100 helicopters, were mobilised for Monday’s rescue operations, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Heavy rain was forecast for Monday night in some parts of central and eastern Japan, where soil is already loosened by record-breaking downpours from the typhoon, prompting Suga to urge residents to keep their guard up.

“Rain is expected in affected areas today. Because of the rain we have seen so far, levels of water are high in some rivers and soil is loose in some areas,” Suga said. “Please remain on your guard for landslides and river overflows.”

A Nagano city official said there were some showers by early afternoon, although they were not heavy.

Some parts of Japan saw about one third of their average annual precipitation just over the weekend, causing 37 rivers to break their banks, NHK said.

More than 77,000 households were still without power by mid-afternoon on Monday, a national holiday, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said. That was down from 262,000 households as of midday on Sunday.

Also, about 136,000 households were without running water as of Monday morning, Suga said.

In Fukushima, north of the capital, Tokyo Electric Power Co <9501.T> reported nine cases of irregular readings from sensors monitoring water over the weekend at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was crippled by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But a Tokyo Electric official said on Monday eight of the irregular readings were triggered by rainwater, and the other one by a malfunction of a monitor, and that there was no leakage of contaminated water.

(Reporting by Kyung Hoon Kim, Kwiyeon Ha; Writing by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Probe of California boat fire begins as grim search goes on for bodies

A woman pauses as she looks over a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Omar Younis

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Federal safety investigators on Tuesday promised an exhaustive probe into the fire that killed 34 people on a dive boat as many of the charred bodies remained trapped in the sunken wreckage off the California coast or missing in the ocean.

After recovering the remains of 20 people from the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception or from the waters where the dive ship sank off Santa Cruz Island, officials said they believed none of the 14 victims initially classified as missing had survived the fast-moving flames.

“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

“Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims,” he said.

The five survivors, including the boat’s captain and four crew members, were above deck when the blaze broke out at about 3:15 a.m. Pacific time and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who perished was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception would remain on the ocean floor, more than 60 feet below the surface, until a site survey had been completed.

A few scant details about the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 60, began to emerge as emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the remains of the 20 bodies recovered so far. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY”

A memorial to the victims grew alongside a dock not far from where the ship was usually docked in Santa Barbara as members of the close-knit boating community reeling from the tragedy wove flowers into a wood and wire fence and constructed a makeshift memorial.

“It’s just such a horrific notion to think what the people down in the below decks, the people sleeping down there must have gone through,” said Judy Weisman, 72. “How terrifying.”

An audio recording of a desperate call made to the U.S. Coast Guard as flames engulfed the boat offered a glimpse into that terror as a man could be heard pleading for help.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in the garbled recording of the call.

“That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.

“Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,” said the man, using the abbreviation for “people on board” a vessel. “I can’t breathe! … Twenty-nine POB.”

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently failed to respond.

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad co-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good lord,” Harmeling said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

A seashell inscribed with the name “Kristy” was hung on the wooden fence at the dock.

(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

A year later, Thailand’s rescued ‘cave boys’ honor diver who died

Members of the Wild Boars soccer team pose for a photo during their return to the Tham Luang caves, where they were trapped in a year ago, in Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Prapan Chankaew

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A Thai soccer team trapped in a cave last year for 17 days returned there on Monday to perform Buddhist rituals honoring a former navy diver killed in the dramatic effort to rescue them that captivated the world.

A year after their ordeal, the team of 12, wearing yellow T-shirts, accompanied by their coach, gave alms to monks in honor of Sergeant Saman Kunan, who died while he worked underwater.

“I want to thank Sergeant Sam,” Ekkapol Chantawong, assistant coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, told Reuters Video News, as the group placed flowers before a portrait of the diver, set beside a row of shaven-headed monks in orange robes.

“Without him, I and the boys would not be standing here.”

The team, aged between 11 and 16, were trapped with their coach on June 23, 2018 when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels of a cave complex they were exploring in the northern province of Chiang Rai.

The race to rescue them gripped public attention as experts from around the world volunteered to help.

Saman Kunan, a former member of an elite Thai Navy SEAL unit, died on the night of July 5 after entering the cave to place oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.

Saman’s wife, Waleeporn Kunan, said the boys always expressed their gratitude to her when they crossed paths in the district where they all live.

“Every time they see me, they would run over just like back then right after their rescue,” she said.

The boys received soccer shirts and offers of tours and match tickets as their rescue unfolded during the World Cup.

A year later, fascination with the saga has yet to die down.

Netflix said in April it had signed a deal to make a miniseries about the rescue, to be directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu and Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya.

Two books about the rescue have been published, and a feature film by British-Thai director Tom Waller, “The Cave”, wrapped shooting in December, the Hollywood Reporter has said.

The boys, regarded as national treasures in Thailand, declined to be interviewed and referred questions to their soccer coach.

“Life is the same but now more people know about me,” said Ekkapol, who founded a new soccer team, Ekkapol Academy, for underprivileged and stateless children.

Ekkapol, who is from a minority group in Myanmar, was granted Thai citizenship after the rescue, as were several of the rescued boys who were also stateless.

“The football team is to encourage the boys, especially the border boys, to have somewhere they can play football. To have their own field and a brighter future,” he said.

(Reporting by Prapan Chankaew, Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)

Rescuers hope to reach more cyclone victims as roads reopen in Mozambique

Aid workers offload maize meal for victims of Cyclone Idai at Siverstream Estates in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

By Emma Rumney

BEIRA, Mozambique (Reuters) – Rescuers said they would reach hundreds of people on Monday still stranded more than a week after a powerful cyclone struck Mozambique and swathes of southeast Africa, as roads started to reopen.

Cyclone Idai lashed Mozambique’s port city of Beira with winds of up to 170 kph (105 mph) around midnight on March 14, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and killing at least 657 people across the three countries.

An evacuee from Buzi village carries her belongings as she arrives at a displacement center near the airport, after Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

An evacuee from Buzi village carries her belongings as she arrives at a displacement center near the airport, after Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

“We are more organized now, after the chaos that we’ve had, so we’re delivering food and shelter to more people today,” Mozambique’s Land and Environment Minister Celso Correia told reporters.

Correia said the number of people in makeshift camps had risen by 18,000 to 128,000 since Sunday, most of them in the Beira area.

Communities near Nhamatanda, around 100 km northwest of Beira and where some people haven’t received aid for days, would receive assistance on Monday, he added.

The cyclone and the heavy rains that followed hampered aid efforts and blocked deliveries of food and other essentials from Beira, which is an important gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

The water covering vast tracts of land west of the port has been receding, but the size of the disaster zone makes getting aid to the neediest difficult.

Aid workers distributed maize meal in the Chipinge district of eastern Zimbabwe – one of the areas where the cyclone wrought major destruction – while residents struggled without access to power or piped water.

“We lost all our perishables after Cyclone Idai,” Chipinge resident Kudakwashe Mapungwana said. “Since then we have no electricity at all and women are busy buying charcoal which is very expensive.”

Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said cases of diarrhea in Mozambique were increasing and they were keeping a close watch out for any outbreak of cholera.

“It’s a killer,” Rhodes Stampa said of cholera, naming the infection as one of his biggest concerns, alongside more flooding. But the weather for the next two weeks looked “pretty good” and dam releases were well-controlled, he added.

Correia said the death toll in Mozambique remained roughly unchanged at 447 on Monday. In Zimbabwe the tropical storm has killed at least 154 people, according to the government, while 56 died in Malawi.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Beira, and Philimon Bulawayo in Chipinge and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrew Heavens)

Cyclone hit millions across Africa in record disaster: U.N.

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

MAPUTO/HARARE (Reuters) – Cyclone winds and floods that swept across southeastern Africa affected more than 2.6 million people and could rank as one of the worst weather-related disaster recorded in the southern hemisphere, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

Rescue crews are still struggling to reach victims five days after Cyclone Idai raced in at speeds of up to 170 kph (105 mph) from the Indian Ocean into Mozambique, then its inland neighbors Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Aid groups said many survivors were trapped in remote areas, surrounded by wrecked roads, flattened buildings and submerged villages.

&ldquo;There’s a sense from people on the ground that the world still really hasn’t caught on to how severe this disaster is,&rdquo; Matthew Cochrane, spokesman for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“The full horror, the full impact is only going to emerge over coming days,” he added.

The official death count in Mozambique stands at 84 – but its president Filipe Nyusi said on Monday he had flown over some of the worst-hit zones, seen bodies floating in rivers and now estimated more than 1,000 people may have died there.

The cyclone hit land near Mozambique’s port of Beira on Thursday and moved inland throughout the weekend, leaving heavy rains in its wake on Tuesday.

Studies of satellite images suggested 1.7 million people were in the path of the cyclone in Mozambique and another 920,000 affected in Malawi, Herve Verhoosel, senior spokesman at the U.N World Food Programme said. It gave no figures for Zimbabwe.

WORST FEARS

Several rivers had broken their banks, or were about to, leaving a huge area covered by the waters, and only accessible by air and water, Lola Castro, WFP regional director for Southern Africa, told the U.N. briefing by phone from Johannesburg.

Heavy rains preceded the cyclone, compounding the problems, said Clare Nullis of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said .

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

A general view shows destruction after Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique, March 16-17, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video on March 19, 2019. Care International/Josh Estey via REUTERS

“It the worst fears are realized … then we can say that it is one of the worst weather-related disasters, tropical-cyclone-related disasters in the southern hemisphere.” Droughts are classed as climate-related not weather-related.

In Beira, a low-lying coastal city of 500,000 people, Nullis said the water had nowhere to drain. “This is not going to go away quickly,” she said.

Beira is also home to Mozambique’s second largest port, which serves as a gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

The control room of a pipeline that runs from Beira to Zimbabwe and supplies the majority of that country’s fuel had been damaged, Zimbabwe’s Energy Minister Jorum Gumbo told state-owned Herald newspaper on Tuesday.

“We, however, have enough stocks in the country and I am told the repairs at Beira may take a week,” he was quoted as saying.

(Reporting Manuel Mucari in Maputo and Macdonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Mfuneko Toyana and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by Catherine Evans and Andrew Heavens)

Greek prosecutors charge 20 over deadly wildfire in Mati

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises in front of burnt houses in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas -/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek prosecutors charged 20 people, including a regional governor and two local mayors, over a wildfire that killed 100 people in the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas last July, a judicial source said on Tuesday.

Most of the victims couldn’t escape from a maze of poorly planned streets in Greece’s worst wildfire disaster. Authorities were accused of a slow response and lack of coordination in rescue operations.

The charges include involuntary manslaughter and causing bodily harm due to neglect, the source said. Prosecutors have drafted a 292-page report that details “a series of mistakes” in handling the disaster.

The accused include Rena Dourou, the governor of Attica region, which includes Mati; Elias Psinakis, mayor of Marathon; and Evangelos Bournous, mayor of Rafina and Pikermi, all towns in the region. The accused have denied any wrongdoing.

Greece’s judicial system has several preparatory stages and the compilation of charges does not necessarily mean that the individual will face trial. An investigating magistrate is now expected to take over and look into the case.

The government attributed the fire to arson and dismissed accusations that it failed to evacuate people in time, saying that unlicensed building had thrived under previous governments.

Mati, a heavily wooded area on the coast east of Athens overlooking the sea, was popular with pensioners and children at summer camps.

Other prosecutors are also investigating separate cases linked to the Mati fire, following citizen lawsuits.

(Reporting by Constantinos Georgizas, writing by Renee Maltezou, editing by Larry King)

Portugal tackles labor trafficking on farms but resources scarce

A Thai worker drinks, during a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Catarina Demony

ODEMIRA, Portugal (Reuters) – Portugal is cracking down on labor trafficking, carrying out thousands of raids on farms suspected of trapping poor migrants in unpaid work, with the known number of victims almost doubling in less than a decade.

“Labor exploitation in agricultural areas, especially in the Alentejo region, is out of control,” said Acasio Pereira, president of the inspectors’ union in Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF).

A European Commission report in December said that in 2015-16 Portugal had a higher proportion of labor trafficking victims per one million of the population than any other European Union state except Malta.

Most victims are men and predominantly from Eastern Europe as well as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, said SEF.

Portuguese investigators say typical victims are impoverished migrants brought to Portugal by trafficking rings with the promise of a job advertised on the Internet.

But once put to work, their identity documents are often confiscated and their pay withheld, with many packed into grim, common living quarters with few amenities.

“Human trafficking is a phenomenon that really worries us,” Filipe Moutas, a police captain in Portugal’s National Republican Guard (GNR), told Reuters as a team checked workers’ employment contracts and identity documents during a raid on a 100-acre (40-hectare) raspberry farm in Alentejo last week.

“We keep a close eye on this and regularly carry out operations of this kind. Our main concern is labor trafficking because that’s the reports we have been receiving.”

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

CRACKDOWN

The Feb. 7 raid began with four police cars driving into the middle of a field where officers jumped out to locate the owner, who had Thais and Bulgarians in his workforce.

Police found no irregularities this time. All workers had the required work permits and their contracts were in order.

“I don’t recruit anyone abroad,” said the farm owner, who wished not to be named. “I need people and they just come.”

But in another raid a few weeks earlier in the nearby city of Beja, police found 26 victims of trafficking and arrested six Romanians, the biggest bust of its kind to date, the SEF said.

The Council of Europe reported last year that labor trafficking was rising across the continent and had overtaken sexual exploitation as the “predominant form of modern slavery” in several countries including Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Portugal’s human trafficking observatory said authorities conducted 4,539 raids and inspections in 2017 at farms and other premises including shops suspected of exploiting labor. The number of known victims rose from 86 in 2010 to 175 in 2017.

The latest figures for 2018 are not yet out but Pereira said the numbers did not reflect the true scale of the scourge.

“SEF doesn’t have the capacity to inspect most properties where workers are being abused,” he said, as it had less than 20 inspectors available to probe Portugal’s interior.

Labor trafficking has risen as Portugal’s native population has aged and declined due to falling birth rates and emigration to more prosperous northern EU countries.

Another factor has been depopulation of the rural interior as young people leave for cities in search of better-paid jobs.

Meanwhile, agricultural exports have boomed in recent years and large farms need ever more cheap labor.

“The situation is worrying, particularly in sectors where there are not enough workers,” said Pereira, pointing to seasonal jobs including olive and strawberry picking.

“That’s where you find trafficking and exploitation.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and 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)

‘Miracle or science?’: Thai soccer team saved from flooded cave

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By John Geddie and Panu Wongcha-um

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Rescuers freed the last four of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from deep inside a flooded cave on Tuesday, a successful end to an extraordinarily perilous mission that gripped the world for more than two weeks.

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

The “Wild Boars” soccer team, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach became trapped on June 23 while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Navy SEAL unit, which led the rescue, said on its Facebook page, adding all were safe.

British divers found the 13, hungry and huddled in darkness on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometers inside the Tham Luang cave complex, on Monday last week.

After pondering for days how to get the 13 out, a rescue operation was launched on Sunday when four of the boys were brought out, tethered to rescue divers.

Another four were rescued on Monday and the last four boys and the coach were brought out on Tuesday, prompting rounds of spontaneous applause as ambulances and helicopters passed.

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Celebrations were tinged with sadness over the loss of a former Thai navy diver who died on Friday while on a re-supply mission inside the cave.

“I want to tell the coach thank you so much for helping the boys survive this long,” said one Chiang Rai woman wearing a traditional dress, tears brimming in her eyes.

“I remember all of their faces, especially the youngest one. He’s the smallest one and he doesn’t have as much experience as the others… I felt like he was one of my own children and I wanted him to come home.”

The last five were brought out of the cave on stretchers, one by one over the course of Tuesday, and taken by helicopter to hospital.

Three members of the SEAL unit and an army doctor, who has stayed with the boys since they were found, were the last people due to come out of the cave, the unit said.

Officials did not comment on the rescue mission as it took place, so details of the final day of the rescue and the condition of the last five to be brought out were not immediately known.

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The eight boys brought out on Sunday and Monday were in good health overall and some asked for chocolate bread for breakfast, officials said earlier.

Two of the boys had suspected lung infections but the four boys from the first group rescued were all walking around in hospital.

Volunteers from as far away as Australia and the United States helped with the effort to rescue the boys. U.S. military personnel also helped.

U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the rescue.

“On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand,” Trump said on Twitter.

“Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!”

Authorities did not reveal the identity of the boys as they were brought out, one by one. Parents of the four boys rescued on Sunday were allowed to see them through a glass window at the hospital, public health officials said on Tuesday, but they will be quarantined for the time being.

The boys were still being quarantined from their parents because of the risk of infection and would likely be kept in hospital for a week for tests, officials said earlier.

(For an interactive graphic “Hope for the 13 trapped in Thai cave”, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2KR2zRj)

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, John Geddie and James Pomfret in CHIANG RAI, and Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Chayut Setboonsarng in BANGKOK; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)