Fires in Greece as seen from space on Saturday. (NASA, via The Associated Press)

Greece declares emergency as forest fires rage

ATHENS: Greece declared a national state of emergency on Saturday as scores of forest fires that have killed at least 46 people continued to burn out of control, leaving some villages trapped within walls of flames, cut off from firefighters and, in some cases, from firefighting aircraft grounded because of high winds.

Desperate people called television and radio stations pleading for help that they feared would not arrive in time.

"I can hear the flames outside my door," one caller from the village of Andritsena told a Greek television station, according to Reuters news service. "There is no water anywhere. There is no help. We are alone."

Although most of the fires have been on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, some broke out on the outskirts of Athens on Saturday, forcing the evacuation of homes and a monastery and closing a major road linking the capital to the main airport for several hours. The national fire brigade said that by evening it had brought those blazes under control, including one that came within about six miles of the city.

The government response to the fires, Greece's worst in decades, is leading to renewed criticism of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis less than a month before parliamentary elections. Karamanlis had already been heavily criticized for his government's handling of fires earlier this summer.

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country has been vulnerable to fire this summer because of drought and three consecutive heat waves that sent temperatures soaring over 100 degrees. More than 3,000 forest fires have razed thousands of acres of wooded areas since June; the earlier fires killed nine people.

The latest spate of fires on the peninsula started Friday. Strong, hot winds have spread the flames.

"The situation is unbelievable," said Yiannis Stamoulis, a spokesman for the Greek Fire Brigade. "We're dealing with savage forces of nature and it's humanly impossible to effectively take them on, however strong and well prepared we may be."

He added, "We're fighting an asymmetrical war."

Firefighters expect the death toll to rise, because they have not yet been able to search some areas that had been overrun by flames.

Hardest hit by the fires were a dozen hamlets tucked into the rural highlands around the town of Zaharo in the western peninsula, where at least 12 people, including some who may have been trying to flee by car, were killed.

Charred bodies were found in cars, houses and fields in areas around Zaharo, firefighters said.

At least some of the people there were believed to have been killed or trapped after a collision between a fire truck and a convoy of cars apparently trying to flee the flames.

Scores of other residents, including elderly and disabled people, remained trapped in their homes, phoning in to local television and radio stations, crying for help.

"Help! Help! Help!" wailed one resident as he spoke with Mega television from the town of Artemida. "Get some one here fast. We're losing everything."

Minutes later, another caller pleaded for authorities to help save her two children, one of whom she feared was in shock after having seen their home go up in flames.

South of Zaharo, rescue teams confirmed at least six deaths in the seaside town of Areopolis, in the Mani region, a popular tourist destination known for its rugged cliffs and ravines.

Among the victims in the area were a pair of French hikers who were trapped in a flaming ravine. Their charred bodies were found locked in an embrace, the authorities said.

Hotels and dozens of surrounding villages have been evacuated.

With national elections set for Sept. 16, Karamanlis suspended campaigning over the weekend to oversee the national response to the fires.

Late Saturday, Karamanlis appeared on national television and declared that he was mobilizing all of the country's resources to tackle the blazes to "prevail in a battle that must be won." Karamanlis also suggested that the recent fires might have been purposely set. "So many fires sparked simultaneously in so many regions is no coincidence," he said, wearing a black tie and suit in a show of mourning. "We will get to the bottom of this and punish those responsible."

But political opponents accused the prime minister of shunning responsibility for what the authorities have called a "national tragedy."

"Rather than deflect attention and lay blame on some anonymous arsonist, the prime minister should take blame for the government's failure to effectively handle this crisis," said Nikos Bistis, a opposition socialist lawmaker, on local television.

The overstretched national fire services are being helped by an estimated 6,000 soldiers mobilized for the operation. The national teams take control of forest fires from community brigades.

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