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Forest fires in Greece claim 49 lives

Government declares a nationwide state of emergency as military called in to battle blazes in the worst summer of wildfires in decades.

A relative reacts next to damaged cars at the scene where on Friday at least 19 people lost their lives at Artemida village near Zaharo, 206 miles southwest of Athens, Greece, on Saturday.

AP PHOTO

ZAHARO, Greece — Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. The death toll rose to at least 49 as the government declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Soldiers and military helicopters reinforced firefighting forces that were stretched to the limit by Greece’s worst summer of wildfires in decades. In the most ravaged area — a string of mountain villages in southern Greece — rescue crews picked through a grim aftermath that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in.

Dozens of charred bodies were found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars, including the remains of a mother hugging her four children.

And new fronts emerged. Dozens of fresh fires broke out across the country — including some blamed on arson — with the worse infernos concentrated in the mountains of southern Greece.

By sea and by land, authorities evacuated hundreds of people trapped by the flames.

An extra 500 soldiers were to join firefighters on Sunday, the fire department said. At least 12 countries also pledged reinforcements, including firefighting aircraft and crews.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said arson was suspected in some of the blazes.

“So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence,” Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address. “The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them.”

A 65-year-old man was arrested and charged with arson and multiple counts of homicide in a fire that killed six people in Areopolis, a town in the southern Peloponnese, said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. Separately, two youths were arrested on suspicion of arson in the northern Greek city of Kavala, he said. Their parents were also to face charges, he said.

Hospitals across Greece were on alert, and the Health Ministry sent tents for 1,500 people to the south to house those made homeless.

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