Firefighters: Greece Wildfires 'Generally Receding'

Massive wildfires in Greece were "generally receding" on Wednesday, fire authorities said, as anger rose over the government's handling of the catastrophic blazes that have seared vast stretches of countryside and killed at least 64 people.

The fires are dominating political debate ahead of Sept. 16 general elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond fast enough — and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack — could hurt Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

Foreign firefighters and aircraft joined in battling the blazes, which first broke out Thursday and burned nearly 500,000 acres in the first three days, leaving blackened tree trunks, gutted houses and dead livestock.

Firefighting efforts Wednesday remained concentrated on the island of Evia and western Peloponnese peninsula. But fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said all major blazes were "generally receding."

"There is a serious danger for the next several days that fires will rekindle, so major firefighting resources will remain deployed," he said.

Most of the firefighters sent by 21 countries were operating in the Peloponnese, the fire department said.

The fires have devastated and infuriated many Greeks, who already had been stunned by deadly forest fires in June and July.

"We have been destroyed, we have nothing left," cried 76-year-old Katerina Andonopoulou, trudging from the edge of Ancient Olympia to her wrecked house in the nearby village of Platano. "Who will help us now?"

Many complained of an inadequate effort by the conservative government to confront the latest disaster.

A nationwide opinion poll conducted Aug. 26-27 indicated support for the conservatives had slipped by 1.6 points in the last week, to 35.2 percent — still 2 points ahead of main opposition Socialist Party.

The MRB survey for private Alpha television, announced late Tuesday, projected bolstered support for three smaller opposition parties, suggesting a slim majority for Karamanlis' conservatives, who had 164 deputies in the last 300-seat parliament.

The survey of 1,309 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.55 percentage points.

Karamanlis declared a nationwide state of emergency Saturday, and the government rushed to prepare financial relief measures for thousands of homeless fire victims. It budgeted some $410 million for immediate relief, although the bill is sure to go higher, the Finance Ministry said.

According to the European Union, nearly 455,000 acres of forest, orchards and scrubland were burned from Thursday through Sunday, raising Greece's fire toll for the year so far to about 664,000 acres. The previous worst year was 2000, when around 358,000 acres were blackened around Greece.

"It is at times like these that a society must show its solidarity," the prime minister said. "At this time, all Greeks must be united."

But critics said authorities' response to the crisis was disorganized.

The government "has been woefully unable to deal with the major issue of the fires all summer," said George Papandreou, the main opposition socialist leader. "Unfortunately, it didn't even manage to save people's lives, their property and their homes."

The government's suggestions that the fires were the result of an organized plan of arson caused confusion and drew criticism.

Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras implied Sunday that a deliberate plan was in motion.

"We can say that this truly constitutes an asymmetric threat," he said without elaborating. He said Greece's National Intelligence Service and police's anti-terrorism division had joined the investigation.

But Socialist party spokesman Yiannis Ragoussis accused the government of "trying to create a Sept. 11 type of climate" by implying Greece was facing a terrorist threat. "It is in fact a communications strategy" for election day, he said.

The political squabbling drew an indirect barb from President Karolos Papoulias.

"It is a national tragedy," Papoulias said. "We all know this, and it is the duty of all of us in these times to show maturity, to face this tragedy."