Arson Is Suspected in Deadly Fires in Greece, Government Says


LONDON — Arsonists probably started the wildfires that killed at least 84 people in Greece this week and nearly obliterated a seaside town, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Friday. The fires were the deadliest disaster in the country’s recent history.

After the three days of national mourning declared by Mr. Tsipras expired, political tensions rose along with the death toll, as questions persisted about who was responsible and how well the government responded to the blazes.

“I assume full political responsibility for the tragedy,” Mr. Tsipras said in an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday afternoon, and he urged the ministers of his government to do the same, “as heavy as that may be.”

But the prime minister failed to specify how the government mechanisms for handling such a disaster might have failed, and instead he placed the blame on poor urban planning and arbitrary housing in Mati, a coastal village east of Athens that was all but wiped out by fire on Monday and Tuesday.

Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the founder of the party that is the junior partner in the governing coalition, received criticism on Twitter after he suggested that some of the residents were to blame for not being able to escape the roaring flames.

“In Mati and in this coast of Athens, all these properties, the majority is without license,” he said in an interview with the BBC on Thursday, after he was heckled by resentful local residents. “And they have occupied the coast without rules,”

“After this tragedy, I think is the moment to understand themselves that it is dangerous for them and for their families to not follow the rules and the laws.”

In a news conference on Thursday evening, government officials raised the possibility of arson and also attributed the disastrous impact of the fire to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Their statements drew widespread criticism, as opposition politicians and citizens accused the government of trying to deflect responsibility.

“I can’t find any grave operational mistakes,” Nikos Toskas, the civil protection minister, said at the news conference. He said that he had handed in his resignation for reasons of conscience, but that the prime minister declined to accept it.

Mr. Tsipras’s emergency cabinet meeting came after a statement on Friday by the main opposition party New Democracy, which condemned the government for “its inability to protect the citizens’ life and fortune” and for the “unfathomable nerve” not to offer an apology.

“Why weren’t there enough fire services in the area?” the party’s statement asked. “And why wasn’t an evacuation ordered?” Survivors and others who witnessed the fires were asking the same things.

“There was no evacuation order,” Sissy Katsouda, 51, a municipal adviser in the town of Pikermi said in a telephone interview. “There was no organized plan, there was no escape route. People burned to death. If the area had been evacuated there wouldn’t be so many victims.”

On Friday afternoon, the government said 84 people were confirmed to have been killed by the fires, while Greek news media put the figure at 87. Some of the victims drowned while trying to swim to safety, as flames roared down from the hills to the beaches.

More than 100 people were still missing on Friday, and officials have cautioned that the number of dead could rise. Residents of at least 1,000 homes have been displaced.

Claims that looting was a motive behind the arson were rebutted by the government.

The prime minister argued that with Greece on the brink of regaining its financial autonomy, a decade after its debt crisis, the government will not allow the nation’s security to be compromised.

“It’s our responsibility to not allow anyone, no matter which dark center they belong in, to stop our progression, and move us away from our goal,” Mr. Tsipras said.

Source : Nytimes