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Greek leader suggests political extremists set fires

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  • NEW: Greek government declares a state of emergency for the entire country
  • NEW: Death toll revised to 44 for fires sweeping southern Greece
  • European Union says 30 member countries have offered help
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ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- Fires in southern Greece that have razed dozens of villages and killed at least 44 people may have been deliberately set ahead of next month's national elections, the prime minister suggested Saturday.


A fire burns in the Mesohoria area on Evia Island, northeast of Athens.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared a nationwide state of emergency Saturday night. He also turned to European Union allies, which have promised help.

Emergency crews pulled charred bodies from homes and local media reported death tolls of up to 50 people.

Scores are hospitalized with severe burns and respiratory problems, state-run television reported.

Although the fires were concentrated in the southern Peloponnese region, heavy smoke billowing Saturday afternoon above Mount Hymettus, southeast of Athens, signaled a new fire. It was burning close to Athens International Airport, forcing officials to close a highway.

In a nationally televised address, Karamanlis suggested the blazes might have been set by political extremists, disrupting political campaigning.

"So many fires sparked simultaneously in so many places is no coincidence," Karamanlis said, and vowed to punish those responsible.

Many firefighters told CNN they are suspicious of the fire's source, given several witness reports that the blazes cropped up simultaneously along a 20-kilometer (12-mile) front of lush greenery in southern Greece.

The prime minister described the situation as a "battle that has to be won," and ordered all resources mobilized to fight the fires.

He also announced that a fund has been set up for fire victims and their families, and an assessment of the disaster will be made.

The most devastated area stretches for 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the western towns of the Zaharo, within the highlands of the western Peloponnese, to the southern tip of the peninsula, Mani.

In the past 24 hours, hundreds of firefighters, soldiers, and planes loaded with water have been battling the infernos on a dozen fronts, authorities said. Yet, despite their efforts, officials said the flames had not been tamed.

"Our emergency services are overstretched and it is humanly impossible to battle this force of nature," a top fire official told CNN.

An EU statement said 30 member countries had offered assistance. France on Saturday was slated to send two planes to help quell the fires, and Norway and Germany pledged to send aircraft as well.

A sweltering heat wave in Greece has parched forests and scrubland. With intense winds fanning the flames, authorities call this the country's worst fire season on record.

Since June, more than 3,000 fires have razed thousands of hectares of forests and scrubland across the country -- nearly triple last year's total -- according to officials.

I-Report: Greek fires
Do you have photos or video footage of the forest fires sweeping Greece? Are you a holidaymaker affected by the blazes? Please get in touch.

A mother, her child and at least seven other people died fleeing burning woods in the mountainous villages in western Peloponnese, near the town of Zaharo, according to a fire department official.


Farther south, six people -- including two French tourists found by rescue crews in an embrace -- were killed in a forest fire that swept near their hotel in the town of Areopolis, located 190 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Athens.

Greece's elections are set for September 16. The ruling party has called for a temporary suspension of political campaigning as a sign of respect to those who died in the flames, and flags on government buildings were flying Saturday at half staff. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Journalist Anthee Carassava contributed to this report

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