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Wildfires approach Athens, hospitals evacuated

DOZENS of wildfires broke out across Greece, torching olive groves, cutting off villages and sending residents fleeing yesterday as one of the largest blazes swept perilously close to the capital's northern suburbs.

The fires north of Athens were reported in an area more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide, and forced authorities to evacuate two large children's hospitals, camp sites, villages and outlying suburban areas threatened by blazes that sent huge clouds of smoke over the capital and scattered ash on city streets.

Anti-aircraft missiles were removed from a base north of Athens threatened by fire, the army said.

With planes and helicopters grounded after nightfall, Fire Service officials said their effort - aided by a lull in strong winds - was concentrated on protecting more than six towns where homes were under threat.

Volunteers and army conscripts helped hundreds of firefighters ring the endangered towns.

"Firefighters are working in extremely difficult circumstances," Prime minister Costas Karamanlis said. "Our priority is the protection of human life and property,"

Some villages threatened lay near the town of Marathon, from which the modern long-distance foot race takes its name.

Local officials said the fire damaged power lines, causing blackouts and water supply outages in many areas after nightfall.

Several hundred people were evacuated from two Athens suburbs. Traffic clogged roads leading south; in places, the flames licked as close to the road as 30 meters (yards).

As the fire closed in on towns and villages north of Athens, residents and volunteers tried desperately to prevent the blaze from engulfing houses.

Scores of residents fled on foot, by motorbike and in cars. Some ran down the road away from the flames. Elderly residents were carried from their homes by firefighters.

Municipal officials said dozens of houses had been destroyed but the government's Civil Protection Agency did not confirm those reports.

The government declared a state of emergency yesterday in greater Athens as officials warned that high winds were set to return today.

"The coming night will be especially difficult," Fire Service spokesman Yiannis Kapakis said. "We urge people to remain calm and, in any case, not panic."

He said 75 fires had broken out across Greece since early yesterday morning - including blazes on the island of Evia, Skyros and Zakynthos as well as in parts of central and southern Greece.

Greece is plagued by forest fires every summer. In 2007, the worst blazes in decades killed more than 70 people.

"This is one of the worst fires we've ever seen in this area," said Nikos Koukis, a municipal official on the fire-stricken area of Grammatiko, north of Athens. "This is a beautiful, green area. I'm not sure we can any longer say this is true."


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