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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Greek fires

Firefighters rescued the marble temples and stadiums of ancient Olympia from raging flames on Sunday, but forest fires ravaged nearby villages and the death toll from Greece's three-day inferno rose to 58.

The Greek government offered rewards of up to one million euros ($1.66 million) for help in tracking down arsonists who it suggests have played a major role in Greece's worst forest fires in decades.

Thick black smoke billowed over the preserved ruins of Olympia, site of the first Olympic Games, on Greece's Peloponnese peninsula. Slowly, the blaze crept up a hillside, engulfing surrounding pine and cypress woods.

"With self sacrifice, firefighters fought 'trench battles' to rescue these sensitive and important sites,'' Public Order Minister Byron Polydoras told reporters.

The fires scorched the yard of the museum, housing a number of famous classical sculptures such as Hermes by Praxiteles, but planes, helicopters and scores of firefighters fought it back.

Ancient Olympia, which hosted the Olympics for centuries from 776 BC, is the site of an Olympic flame ceremony every two years.

"Here it is, the contrast: ancient Greece gave the world civilisation and modern Greece gives it destruction," a resident of ancient Olympia told Alter TV station.

Since Friday, towering walls of flame have cut a swath of destruction through the southern Peloponnese peninsula and swept across other regions, prompting Greece to declare a nationwide state of emergency on Saturday.

Firefighters and planes from other European Union countries have joined the battle.

The fires have covered Athens in white ash, forced thousands to flee their villages and burned about 500 homes and thousands of hectares of forest and farmland.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who has called a snap parliamentary election on September 16, has suggested arsonists are behind the fires. On Sunday, Greece offered a reward for information leading to their capture.

"The reward is set between 100,000 euro ($A166,000) and one million euro for every (act of) arson, depending on whether death or serious injury occurred and the size of the damage," the Public Order Ministry said in a statement.

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