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article imageGreek PM Tsipras visits scene of wildfire disaster

By Hélène COLLIOPOULOU (AFP)     Jul 30, 2018 in World

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday paid his first visit to the area ravaged by the country's worst ever wildfires, as anger mounts over his government's response to the disaster which has claimed scores of lives.

His trip, a week after the fires broke out, was not announced beforehand in what local media said was a bid to avoid protests by residents of the hard-hit seaside communities east of Athens -- Mati and Rafina.

The current death toll of 91 was expected to rise Monday after the coastguard said another body was found underwater near a beach in the affected area.

Twenty-five people are officially listed as missing and may be among 28 victims whose bodies are being examined by forensic pathologists and have not yet been identified, local authorities said.

Tsipras visited the area for an hour, his office said, meeting with local authorities, fire brigade and army officials and volunteers, amid fears the death toll could exceed 100.

"We thank you for all you are doing," the prime minister told rescuers, some of whom have been mobilised for three straight days, recovering charred bodies, maintaining security, and working -- amid dwindling hope -- to locate survivors.

"Keep morale high," he told a firefighting officer in footage exclusively aired by state broadcaster ERT. "Let the barbs fall on us, not you."

The Athens observatory on Monday said the fire had burned an estimated 1,260 hectares (3,100 acres).

On his Twitter account, Tsipras said he had "boundless respect" for those who fought "against the odds" in the flames.

Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said over 1,000 buildings had been declared unfit for use. Power and water shortages still abound.

The government has offered emergency assistance of 5,000 euros ($5,800) to fire-stricken persons. Relatives of victims are to receive 10,000 euros, while minors who lost their parents are to receive a monthly stipend of 1,000 euros, he said.

But the leftist government has faced mounting criticism as residents battle to resume their lives with the help of the authorities and volunteers.

- 'Like a thief' -

The main opposition New Democracy conservatives on Monday said Tsipras had toured the area in secret "like a thief".

"Citizens are no longer swayed by PR tricks. They demand to know the truth over why so many human lives were unjustly lost," the party said.

The fires struck the coastal communities popular with holidaymakers on July 23, burning with such ferocity that most people fled to the safety of the sea with just the clothes on their backs.

Many then had to wait several hours in the water for help to arrive and it was local fishermen, not the coastguard or navy, who came to their aid.

Government officials have insisted that with winds blowing at a speed of up to 120 kilometres (75 miles) an hour, there was little time to mount an effective evacuation.

"The fire burned about five kilometres in an hour and a half. The current estimate is that it would not be possible to evacuate a community of 15-20,000 people in an organised manner," Tzanakopoulos said.

He also insisted that cabinet axings were "the last thing" on the prime minister's mind at present.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he assumed "political responsibility" for the tra...
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he assumed "political responsibility" for the tragedy
Aris Oikonomou, AFP/File

Tsipras has said he assumes "political responsibility" for the tragedy as a bitter debate rages over who was to blame. His political opponents say this is an empty gesture without his resignation.

The rightwing and centrist opposition accuse the government of bungling its response in an area habitually hit by wildfires, and of trying to hide the scale of the loss of human life as the disaster unfolded.

The government has said there were indications that arson was involved and an investigation has been opened.

Experts have said that a mix of poor urban planning, including a lack of proper access routes and the construction of too many buildings next to combustible forest areas contributed to what were Europe's worst wildfires this century.

A vigil for the victims, titled "An apology to the dead", will be held outside parliament in Athens later Monday, organised by veteran basketball player Yiannis Gagaloudis.

"(It's) a march with candles, to light the sky and the souls of our fellow human beings," Gagaloudis wrote on Facebook.

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