ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas resigned on Friday in the wake of a wildfire last month that killed 88 people and led to widespread criticism of the government for its handling of the disaster.
Toskas had previously offered to quit after the July 23 blaze in the small seaside town of Mati east of Athens, but Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras refused to accept his resignation.
The minister reiterated his desire to step aside again on Friday during a meeting with Tsipras, in a move that the main political opposition said came too late to appease the public.
“This natural disaster, and the loss of so many people in Mati, overwhelms my desire to continue. This is something I had stated publicly from the first moment,” Toskas, a retired army general, said in a statement.
Pressure has been growing on the government, which is trailing the conservative opposition in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debt crisis and reap the political benefits.
There have been recriminations over what went wrong and led to the deaths of dozens in Mati, where hundreds of people were trapped by towering walls of flames when they tried to flee.
Many jumped into the sea to survive but others died, either in their cars or when they were cornered on the edge of steep cliffs by the rapidly advancing inferno.
Last Friday Tsipras said he took political responsibility for the deadly wildfire amid accusations that his government had failed to protect lives and to apologise for the disaster.
Seeking to deflect public anger, he told his ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.
“Responsibilities have a name: Alexis Tsipras. He and his government do not have the courage to assume them 11 days after the tragedy,” the conservative New Democracy party said after the minister’s resignation.
Tsipras’s office quickly responded, accusing the conservative party of trying to score political gains from a national tragedy.
The death toll rose to 88 on Friday when a 35-year-old woman died from her injuries. Her six-month old baby, the youngest victim, had died in her arms from smoke inhalation as they tried to escape the flames.
Greek authorities say they suspect the fire was set deliberately. Arson is thought to be a frequent cause of forest fires in Greece, a crude method to clear the way for potential development.
Toskas’s duties have been assigned to Panos Skourletis, the country’s interior minister.
Reporting by Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas; Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson