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Firefighters battle 1 major blaze as others contained; PM promises to rebuild

Firefighters battle 1 major blaze as others contained; PM promises to rebuild

Firefighters battled their last major blaze in southern Greece Thursday after a week of forest fires killed 64 people and cost the country at least euro 1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion), prompting a vast relief effort.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who faces a close race for re-election in less than three weeks, promised to rebuild all homes destroyed by the fires through a new disaster relief fund made up of state and private contributions. He said homeless families would initially be provided with prefabricated homes.
Karamanlis did not say how much that would cost. Initial government estimates indicate at least 1,500 homes were gutted in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and on the island of Evia, just north of Athens. But there are concerns that figure could double. At least 4,000 people were left homeless, but that number also could double.
"It is our duty to restore what has been lost, and it is our duty to future generations to restore the environment that has been lost," Karamanlis said. "The state will rebuild lost homes with the contributions from this fund."
There were fears that a new heat wave accompanied by strong winds forecast over the weekend could feed smaller fires or rekindle those still smoldering around the country.
In the early afternoon, a fresh breeze fueled Greece's one major remaining fire as it swept through the hamlet of Kato Kotyli, near Karytaina in the Peloponnese. But residents and firefighters managed to prevent it from destroying any of the 30 or so homes.
Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said half the afflicted areas' agricultural infrastructure _ which, before the fires, accounted for 12 percent of the country's total _ had been wiped out.
But he said the impact on the overall economy would be small.
"There is no doubt that the fires have had huge economic consequences on the provinces affected," Alogoskoufis said. "But the consequences on the overall economy are restrained and limited."
He said the affected regions contribute a total of 4.5 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. The Finance Ministry put the preliminary cost of the destruction so far at a minimum of 0.6% of GDP, or euro1.2 billion (US$1.6 billion).
The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Danuta Hubner, was expected to tour the burned regions Friday to asses how much aid Greece needed.
"The Commission is ready to assist Greece with all the possible technical, legal and financial instruments," Hubner said in Brussels.
In most of the Peloponnese, where 57 of the deaths were recorded, the fronts were contained and firefighters extinguished the lingering blazes.
Their success was attributed in part to lower temperatures and a drop in the winds, which had often blown with gale force. But the weather service forecast a new heat wave at the end of the week.
In the area around Kato Kotyli, the wind picked up just after noon Thursday and fed a blaze that, until then, had been shrinking.
"They sent us away last night, but we came back this morning. The fire was small but now with the wind it has come up over the road," said Vasillis Panagopoulos, who cut a green branch off a bush outside his summer home to beat back the flames.
With most fires under control, the conservative government has focused on immediate relief for residents of burned areas.
Thousands of people lined up outside banks Thursday to receive emergency aid, and the government said 20,000 people received a total euro72 million (US$98 million) since banks started to hand out the funds on Wednesday.
But officials said they would tighten checks on the fast-track aid process after at least 15 people from other parts of the country were arrested in the southwestern city of Pyrgos for allegedly making false claims.
"There were some instances of unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of the aid," Finance Minister Alogoskoufis said.
In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed homes in dozens of villages, as well as fragile mountain ecosystems _ which will require decades to revive _ and an entire rural way of life in some of the peninsula's afflicted areas, threatening to turn thousands of villagers into environmental refugees.
The flames even damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games and the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for the summer and winter games.
At least three mediaeval churches and two ruined castles suffered damage, the Culture Ministry said.
Data from European Space Agency satellites show that Greece has experienced more wildfire activity this August than other European countries have over the last decade, the agency said.
Arson has been widely blamed. Six people have been charged with deliberately setting fires.
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) has gone up in smoke since the start of the year.
A help line set up for fire victims and offers of help has received tens of thousands of calls so far, mostly from people who want to contribute aid. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said private donations from Greeks has amounted to more than euro38 million (US$52 million).
Although the government has budgeted about euro300 million (around US$450 million) for such aid, the Finance Ministry has said the cost is expected to be much higher than that.
The fires are dominating political debate before the Sept. 16 elections. Criticism that the government failed to respond quickly enough _ and its suggestions the fires resulted from an organized attack _ could hurt Karamanlis.
A series of polls have indicated that the conservatives had a razor-thin margin over George Papandreou's main opposition Socialist party.
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Associated Press Writers Patrick Quinn and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.