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Greece fires contained, authorities focus on relief effort _ 3 weeks before elections

Greece fires contained, authorities focus on relief effort _ 3 weeks before elections

Winds relented throughout Greece Wednesday, enabling thousands of firefighters to tame most of the massive fires that killed at least 64 people and obliterated record swaths of field and forests in six days.
The fire department said all major blazes were "generally receding," but that authorities remained on high alert for possible rekindling before a new heat wave forecast for week's end.
In the southern Peloponnese peninsula, where 57 of the deaths were recorded, all the fronts were contained and firefighters _ backed by more than 20 water-dropping aircraft _ were moving in to extinguish lingering blazes.
"The fires are no longer spreading," fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said. "We had a drop in the wind, which we exploited." Temperatures also dropped to about 28 C (82.4 F) in the region, compared to 41 C (105.8 F) on Aug. 24, the day the fires raged unchecked.
But late Wednesday authorities evacuated five villages near the mountain village of Karytaina in the central Peloponnese after winds rekindled a blaze. The fire department said Karytaina, which is crowned with a mediaeval castle, was not in immediate danger.
At least two major fires still blazed out of control near the Albanian border to the northwest. On the hard-hit island of Evia, north of Athens, where the other seven deaths occurred, all blazes were contained. Diamandis said no inhabited areas were threatened.
With most fires seemingly under control, the conservative government will now focus on a vast relief effort, less than three weeks before national elections.
"Our main task now is to relieve the pain, the stress and the agony that the victims of the forest fires ... are feeling," deputy government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros told The Associated Press.
The inferno destroyed hundreds of homes in dozens of villages, fragile mountain ecosystems _ that will require decades to revive _ and an entire rural way of life in some of the Peloponnese's afflicted areas, threatening to turn thousands of villagers into environmental refugees.
The flames even licked the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
The fire department, which finally received aid from 19 countries, has not announced an overall assessment of the damage. Independent estimates say around 200,000 hectares (495,000 acres) of forest, olive groves and scrub may have been consumed _ the largest amount since official records started in the 1950s.
"These fires are worse than in any previous year," said Gavriil Xanthopoulos, a researcher at Greece's National Agricultural Research Foundation.
There have been no estimates so far on the cost to Greece's economy.
More than 10,000 people, mostly dressed in black and bearing banners reading "No to the destruction of nature" gathered outside the house of parliament in central Athens late Wednesday to silently protest the destruction. Some demonstrators booed and taunted riot police, who responded by throwing stun grenades.
About 1,000 people, many wearing tee-shirts with the slogan "We are all Peloponnesians," held a similar protest in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Arson has been widely blamed. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires. Arson suspects are rarely convicted. Where cases are proven, the motives are typically profit, revenge against neighbors, or the clearing of pastures by shepherds.
Up to 190,000 hectares (469,000 acres) were laid waste between Friday and Tuesday alone _ 10 times the annual average for the past 50 years, according to the European Commission's European Forest Fire Information System, or EFFIS. A total of 275,000 hectares (679,000 acres) _ an area almost the size of the small U.S. state of Rhode Island _ has gone up in smoke since the start of the year.
"There are still some fires burning, but definitely the speed of increase of the fire front in the areas burnt is much, much smaller than in the first three days, which was very, very fast mainly due to the strong winds," EFFIS researcher Paulo Barbosa said.
"The conditions are better and I think in the next few days the situation will be under control," he told The Associated Press.
Some say it was the worst catastrophe since a Turkish army ravaged the Peloponnese in 1825, during the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Apart from the blow to the Peloponnese's fragile ecosystems, Greenpeace Greece director Nikos Haralambidis warned that mountain populations could end up as internally displaced "environmental refugees."
"There will be several thousand people faced with the choice of staying in a burnt land or moving to the cities," he said. "Their main source of income was olive oil production ... and new olive saplings need at least 15 years to produce a decent crop."
A helpline set up for fire victims and offers of help has received more than 40,000 calls so far, mostly from volunteers who want to contribute aid, Deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas said.
In the southwestern city of Pyrgos, hundreds of people crowded into bank branches to take advantage of a government promise to give them aid just by signing a single piece of paper vouching that the fires had damaged or destroyed their property.
In nearby Ancient Olympia, 34-year-old Giorgos Bouzas, who owns a paper business, submitted his voucher at a bank and was waiting for his funds.
"Everything is closed now, the hotels and restaurants, while before everyday they were full. Now we are alone, and we need 10 years at least to get back to where we were," Bouzas said.
The Finance Ministry also said it was suspending value added tax, or VAT, payments for people and companies and outstanding taxes in afflicted areas for six months and banning seizures of property for outstanding debts.
Although the government has already budgeted about a third of a billion euros (around US$450 million) for such aid, the Finance Ministry has said the cost was expected to be much higher.
The fires are dominating political debate before the elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough _ and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack _ could hurt Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.
In the main street of Ancient Olympia, a tourist gift shop was draped Wednesday with banners reading "Shame on you" in four languages.
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Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros in Pyrgos; Patrick Quinn, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and John F.L. Ross in Ancient Olympia contributed to this report.