Greece seeks EU help to recover from forest fires

KATO SAMIKO, Greece Fri Aug 31, 2007 5:06pm BST

1 of 5. A Greek Orthodox priest hugs a relative of Giorgos Tripodis, who died during last week's forest fires, at Minthi village some 370 km (230 miles) southwest of Athens August 31, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

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KATO SAMIKO, Greece (Reuters) - Greece turned to the European Union on Friday for help rebuilding communities destroyed by forest fires that have burned for over a week, killing at least 63 people and leaving thousands homeless.

The government has already paid out 72 million euros (48.8 million pounds) to more than 20,000 victims whose properties were destroyed in nationwide fires which by Friday had been contained to just three significant blazes, according to the fire brigade.

Just two weeks ahead of a parliamentary election, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has come under severe criticism for his government's handling of Greece's worst fires in memory and their aftermath.

Athens hopes to tap EU emergency relief aid to overcome the unprecedented national disaster, which it estimates will cost the economy more than 1.2 billion euros.

The official in charge of a 1 billion-euro Solidarity Fund, Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Huebner, flew by helicopter to view the scorched valleys of the Peloponnese peninsula before meeting Karamanlis in Athens.

"The dramatic situation in Greece touches not only the Greek people but all of us," Huebner said, promising EU help.

Five years ago the European Union provided 728 million euros to Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and France to counter damage from summer floods.

RAIN FORECAST

The national weather service predicted a mini-heat wave in the Athens region on Saturday but also the prospect of rains in some parts of the country, reducing the risk of new flare-ups.

On the Peloponnese, where hot winds had spread fires that ravaged vast tracts of forests and farms, life was starting to return to normal. Road were re-opened and electricity was restored to most of the 425 villages which had been cut off.

Greek villagers remained in shock, pondering the future of farming communities that have lost lives and land.

"Everything that could happen, has happened here," said farmer Makis Stavropoulos in the village of Kato Samiko.

Trucks drove up winding roads, carrying food, water and clothing to remote villages. Mobile medical units offered health checks to locals.

The government has sent 100 prefabricated homes and has promised a flow of 40 more per day. Twenty were already installed in the villages of Makistos and Artemida nearby where a total of 22 people died and the majority of houses destroyed.

Sitting on his tractor, farmer Stavropoulos said he feared a new exodus from the ravaged countryside. "We must get back to our normal work, restore the forest and get the villagers to stay in their villages and not leave for the big towns."

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