Greek Opposition Slams Government Response to Wildfires; 85 Dead, Arson Suspected

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

The administration of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is facing intense criticism for its response to deadly wildfires that killed 85 people at last count. The opposition accused the Tsipras government of incompetence and arrogance, while the government blamed illegal construction in the affected areas and suggested terrorists might have set the fires.

Defense minister Panos Kammenos was heckled by angry survivors during visits to areas ravaged by the fires. “You let us burn. You left us to the mercy of God,” Kammenos was told on Thursday by a resident of Mati, the coastal village all but eradicated in the blaze.

Angry citizens complained of inadequate disaster preparations, particularly the inability of the authorities to manage traffic as people fled the inferno in their cars. Many of the dead were burned in their vehicles as they attempted to flee and got stuck in traffic. Others flung themselves into the sea to escape the fire and are thought to have drowned.

The Greek public is presently transfixed by the search for two nine-year-old twin girls missing in the wildfires; their desperate father mistakenly misidentified two other girls photographed on a rescue boat with a strange man as his missing children, sparking fears they had been abducted during rescue operations.

“Why did you close Marathonas?” a woman tearfully asked Kammenos, referring to the main road leading from Mati to Athens.

Greek opposition parties waited until the official three-day period of mourning ended on Friday to go on offense. Tsipras himself was excoriated for disappearing from public view on Tuesday. His administration was castigated for accepting no responsibility and firing no officials for their deadly ineptitude. Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas reportedly offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it, telling Toskas that it was “time to fight” instead.

“They left us alone to burn like mice. No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation. No one,” a Mati survivor said in a television interview.

“This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” a spokeswoman for the opposition New Democracy party said after a press conference on Thursday night at which government officials offered no apologies.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened? They have confessed they let people burn helplessly,” socialist PASOK party leader Fofi Gennimata charged.

Kammenos blamed poor and unlicensed construction for the devastating speed of the wildfires, saying that improper development blocked escape routes from Mati and produced buildings that caught fire too easily. Overcrowding in the areas affected by the fire was also blamed for the high death toll. High winds in the coastal region are said to have driven the blaze to spread so quickly that firefighters could not contain it or remove people from its path.

Local officials said the strength of the wildfires was badly underestimated in the early hours of the crisis, and claimed insufficient funding due to austerity measures left them without the resources needed to contain the fires. The mayor of the devastated Rafina-Pikermi municipality, Vagelis Bournos, did little to assuage public anger by musing that even if timely evacuation orders had been issued, citizens would have ignored them to protect their homes.

When local residents told CNN on Wednesday they have been asking for improved fire protection and disaster preparedness planning for years, Bournos admitted it was true and conceded that earlier evacuation orders might have saved lives. The director of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Greece shot back that warnings of extreme fire danger have been issued for years, rendering the mayor’s excuses “lame.”

Greek officials have also raised the possibility that the fires were set deliberately. Toskas said on Thursday that satellite images and inspections of the burned area by police and fire officials produced “serious indications of arson.” He also made a vague reference to a “suspicious find” in Mati but did not elaborate.

A government spokesman said at least 15 different fires in three widely separated areas appear to have started almost simultaneously, creating an “unprecedented” challenge for firefighters. Anti-terrorism police are reportedly investigating the fires, which suggests the possibility that the fires were a mass-casualty attack.

No claim of responsibility appears to have been made yet, and there has been no official speculation as to who the culprits might have been. Unless hard evidence is presented quickly, critics of the Tsipras government will likely dismiss the arson theory as another excuse for failure.

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