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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Rescuers scour scorched towns after devastating Greece wildfires

Many people fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens

Rescue workers in Greece searched charred homes and burned-out cars on Wednesday as the toll from one of the country's deadliest worst wildfires is as the deathtoll reached 80 dead with a further 187 injured.

Many people fled to the sea to try to escape the flames as they tore through towns near Athens.

Greek media have described the disaster as a "national tragedy", while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia and announced three days of national mourning. The daily newspaper Ethnos' front page simply read "Armaggeddon," in reference to the biblical prophecy of the end of days.

The government has not yet said how many people are still missing as firefighters continue to tackle blazes stoked by high winds which reduced pine forests to ash and devouring hundreds of buildings.

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Greek wild fires

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Death toll rises as wildfire ravages Greece - in pictures

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Residents and terrified holidaymakers were overtaken by the flames in homes, on foot or in their cars.

The charred bodies of 26 people, including small children, were discovered at a villa at the seaside resort of Mati, 40 kilometres north-east of Athens, said rescuer Vassilis Andriopoulos.

They were huddled together in small groups, "perhaps families, friends or strangers, entwined in a last attempt to protect themselves as they tried to reach the sea", he said.

With many burnt beyond recognition, Greek coroners began the grim task of trying to identify the victims of the wildfires near Athens, having to rely on DNA or dental records as angst over missing persons mounted among relatives.

"Work has started on identifying the victims of the wildfires but the majority of the bodies are totally charred," Grigoris Leon, head of the Hellenic Society of Forensic Medicine, told Reuters.

The post-mortems and identification procedures are taking place at a morgue at Shisto, west of Athens. Leon said this will involve team work by coroners, forensic dentistry experts from the Athens University's Dental School, and the Greek police's forensic service.

As world leaders including Pope Francis affirmed their solidarity, Athens said 308 engineers would arrive on Wednesday to assess the damage.

But "the problem is what is still hidden under the ashes," said emergency services vice president Miltiadis Mylonas.

The death toll could surpass that from the blazes that hit Greece's southern island of Evia in 2007 in which 77 people died.

One Belgian was among the victims, said Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders, while in Warsaw Poland's government said a Polish woman and her son also died.

Firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a wildfire raging in Verori, near Loutraki city, Peloponnese, southern Greece. EPA
Firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a wildfire raging in Verori, near Loutraki city, Peloponnese, southern Greece. EPA

Some 187 people are in hospital, with 82 still being treated on Tuesday evening, including almost a dozen children, most of whom were in a "serious condition", the fire services said.

Dramatic video footage showed people fleeing by car as the tourist-friendly Attica region declared a state of emergency.

Athanasia Oktapodi, whose home is surrounded by pine trees, said she first spotted the fire moving down the hill "and five or ten minutes later it was in my garden".

"I ran out like a crazy person, got to the beach and put my head in the water. Then the patrol boats came," said the 60-year-old.

Mati 'no longer exists'

Fire service spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri said firefighters were still searching for more victims and taking "dozens of calls" from people looking for relatives.

Winds of above 100 kilometres per hour in Mati caused a "sudden progression of fire" through the village, said Ms Maliri.

"Mati no longer exists," said the mayor of nearby Rafina, Evangelos Bournous, adding that more than a thousand buildings and 300 cars had been damaged.

"I saw the flames outside the window of our hotel. I thought it would explode," said Alina Marzin, a 20-year-old German tourist who had been staying at the Capo Verde hotel in Mati on Monday evening with her brother and their parents.

At least six people died trying to escape the flames into the sea. Some 715 people were evacuated by boats to Rafina, the government said.

"People are shocked, lost. Some of them have lost everything: children, parents, homes," said Red Cross spokeswoman Georgia Trisbioti.

The European Union activated its Civil Protection Mechanism after Greece sought help. Several countries said they were sending aircraft to help fight the flames.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted the EU "will spare no effort to help Greece and the Greek people", while Pope Francis spoke of his "deep sadness," sentiments echoed by EU and Nato leaders.

Natp head Jens Stoltenberg offered the alliance's full solidarity with Greece, whose government earmarked financial aid for victims' relatives.