01 September 2023

Greek firefighters rescue 25 migrants trapped in forest as wildfire approaches

01 September 2023

Firefighters have rescued a group of 25 migrants trapped in a forest in north-eastern Greece as flames from a massive wildfire approached, authorities said.

The fire department said the group became trapped in the forest between two villages in the Evros region, near the border with Turkey.

No injuries were reported. There was no immediate information on the group’s nationalities.

The blaze, burning for a 14th day on Friday, has already been blamed for the deaths of 20 people whose bodies were found last week.

All are believed to have been migrants who had recently crossed the border. Greece’s Disaster Victim Identification Team has been tasked with identifying the remains.

A multinational force of more than 580 firefighters backed by six planes and two helicopters is battling the wildfire that began on August 19 and within days had joined with other blazes to form the largest single wildfire in a European Union country since records began in 2000.

The fire has burned homes and vast tracts of forest, scorching more than 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres).

Overnight, residents of the border town of Soufli were put on alert for possible evacuation as a huge wall of flames approached.

To date, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in villages and towns in north-eastern Greece due to the fire, although the vast majority have since been allowed back.

Greece has been stricken by hundreds of wildfires across the country this summer, with dozens of new blazes breaking out each day. The vast majority are extinguished quickly before they spread, but the Evros blaze has proved particularly tough to control.

Another persistent blaze has been burning for more than a week in a national park on the slopes of Mount Parnitha, on the fringes of Athens, with more than 160 firefighters trying to extinguish occasional flare-ups.

With its own firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called on other European countries for help, and has received hundreds of firefighters and a dozen aircraft from France, Germany, Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Albania, Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

Arson is suspected in some of the smaller fires that were quickly brought under control, and authorities have made several arrests across the country. But the causes of the major blazes are still under investigation.

Speaking on Thursday in parliament, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis implied – without providing any evidence – that migrants may have been responsible for the Evros fire, even though he noted an investigation into the causes is still ongoing.

“It is almost certain that the causes were manmade. And it is also almost certain that this fire started on routes that are often used by illegal migrants who have entered our country,” Mr Mitsotakis said. “We don’t know if it was negligence or deliberate.”

Last week, three people – two Greeks and one Albanian national – were arrested in north-eastern Greece and charged with a series of crimes for allegedly rounding up 13 people from Syria and Pakistan and forcing them into a car trailer, accusing them, without any evidence, of setting fires.

Mr Mitsotakis said incidents of vigilantism would not be tolerated.

Several people, all Greeks, have been arrested in the past two weeks on suspicion of arson for allegedly deliberately attempting to start wildfires.

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