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Aug 27, 2007 at 11:15am IST

Forest fires threaten ancient Olympic site in Greece

Ancient Olympia (Greece): Firefighters backed by aircraft dropped water and foam on the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Sunday to stop wildfires from burning the 2,800-year-old ruins, one of the most revered sites of antiquity.

But the fires burning for three straight days obliterated vast swathes of the country and the death toll rose by 11 on Sunday to 60.

New blazes broke out faster than others could be brought under control, and through the night, more fires started.

THREATENED: The winged statue of victory stands in front of smoke from fires in the village of ancient Olympia.

Desperate residents appealed through television stations for help from a firefighting service already stretched to the limit and many blamed authorities for leaving them defenseless.

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," said fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis. "This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Government and firefighting officials have suggested arson caused many of the blazes, and several people had been arrested.

The government offered a reward of up to $1.36 million for anyone providing information that would lead to the arrest of an arsonist.

Forest fires are common during Greece's hot, dry summers - but nothing has approached the scale of the last three days.

Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires are sometimes set to circumvent the law.

The front of one fire on Sunday reached Ancient Olympia in southern Greece, burning trees and shrubs just a few yards from the museum at the site.

Firefighters said the flames, fanned by high winds and swirling air, leaped hundreds of feet in the air at times.

The nearby grounds of the International Olympic Academy were completely burned, as was the grove where the heart of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, is buried.

Although the pristine forest around Ancient Olympia was burned, none of the ruins were damaged.

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"Firefighters fought a battle in Ancient Olympia, which was won," Diamandis said. Authorities said at least two firefighters had been injured in the battle with the flames on Sunday.

Ruined temples of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and his wife Hera stand on what was a lush riverside site - a flat stretch of land surrounded by pine-clad hills - near the stadium that hosted the ancient Olympic games for more than 1,000 years after they started in 776 BC.

The site strewn with fallen columns includes the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling hall, hostels, bathhouses, priests' residences and altars. The fifth century BC limestone temple of Zeus is one of the largest in mainland Greece.

Helicopters and aircraft covered the ruins with water and foam. The flames reached the edge of the ancient stadium, searing the grass and incinerating the trees on the hill above. Volunteers grabbed buckets of water and joined firefighters.

"The important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem," Culture Minister George Voulgarakis said at the site.

Firefighters remained in the area after dark to ensure the fire did not re-ignite.

"It's hell everywhere," said Costas Ladas, a resident of Kolyri near Ancient Olympia, who said the fire covered more than a mile in three minutes. "I've never seen anything like it."

Local schoolteacher Gerassimos Kaproulias criticized the government, saying it was totally unable to deal with the fires.

"I am very angry," he said. "Nobody thought that one of the five most highly protected areas in Greece could be burned like this."

The fire also blazed into the nearby village of Varvasaina, destroying several houses. As residents rushed to battle the flames, others, stunned, walked the streets holding their heads in their hands.

The worst-affected region was around the town of Zaharo, south of Ancient Olympia. Thick smoke blocked out the summer sun and could be seen more than 60 miles away.

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The worst of the fires have been concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens. Strong winds blew smoke and ash over the capital, blackening the evening sky and turning the rising moon red.

In the ravaged mountain villages in the Peloponnese, rescue crews found a grim scene that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in.

Dozens of charred bodies have been found across fields, homes, along roads and in cars.

The remains of a mother hugging her four children were found near the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese.

Four people were killed in a new fire that broke out on Evia on Sunday, including two firefighters, the fire department said. Another two people were found in villages in the Peloponnese.

New fires also broke out Sunday in the central region of Fthiotida - one of the few areas that had been unscathed, Diamandis said.

Elsewhere, flames were about less than two miles from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, a 2,500-year-old monument near the town of Andritsaina in the southwestern Peloponnese, said the town's mayor, Tryphon Athanassopoulos.

"We are trying to save the Temple of Apollo, as well as Andritsaina itself," he told Greek television.

Across the country, churchgoers prayed for the blazes to abate.

Nearly 4,000 soldiers, backed by military helicopters, were sent to reinforce firefighters over the past three days, and at least 12 countries were sending aid.

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