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Fire death toll at 49; Greece declares national emergency

Residents tried to extinguish a burning house in the village of Smerna yesterday. Some of the raging fires, spread by dry winds, have been blamed on arsonists. In Areopolis, a town in the southern Peloponnese, a 65-year-old man was arrested and charged with arson and multiple counts of homicide in a fire that killed six people. Residents tried to extinguish a burning house in the village of Smerna yesterday. Some of the raging fires, spread by dry winds, have been blamed on arsonists. In Areopolis, a town in the southern Peloponnese, a 65-year-old man was arrested and charged with arson and multiple counts of homicide in a fire that killed six people. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

ZAHARO, Greece -- Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages, and scorched the edges of Athens yesterday, 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 scoured a grim terrain that spoke of last-minute desperation as the fires closed in.

Dozens of charred bodies were found in fields and 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 attributed to 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 today, officials 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 also will face charges.

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

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

The blaze broke out on Friday afternoon and quickly engulfed villages, trapping dozens of people during the night and killing at least 39. Scores of people were treated in local hospitals for burns and breathing problems.

Zaharo Mayor Pantazis Chronopoulos said he feared there would be more dead.

"We still have missing who haven't been found. We have about 10 missing," he said, adding that soldiers were checking burned houses for possible victims.

"I feel deep grief for our dead," Karamanlis said in his address. "I feel deep pain for the mother who perished in the flames with her arms round her children. I feel anger -- the same that you feel."

Desperate residents called television and radio stations to appeal for help, saying they were surrounded by flames. The fire department said 26 villages had been evacuated.

To the north of Athens on the island of Evia, a massive fire raged out of control, burning across hillsides and through villages.

Winds blowing with gale-force gusts blew thick smoke southwards into Athens, turning the sky over the capital red and raining ashes down into the center of the city. Police and the coast guard used patrol boats to evacuate 300 people from the island's town of Aliveri and 40 from the nearby town of Styra.

About 300 tourists, mainly from France, were evacuated from local hotels, said Greek-French architect Xavier Pathoulas.

"If the wind doesn't turn tonight, we will burn," he said.

Vacationers in Styra said about 500 people were preparing to spend a second night on a beach, with flames surrounding nearby hills and burning through villages.

Hot, dry seasonal winds drove the flames across a landscape parched by heat waves. Reduced winds and a slight dip in temperatures were forecast for today.

The fires were so severe that authorities said they could not yet provide an estimate of how much damage they had caused, nor what expanse of land had been burned.

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