Greece declared a nationwide state of emergency after the country's worst forest fires in decades killed at least 47 people and trapped many more in villages surrounded by flames.
With swathes of the Peloponnese peninsula, the island of Evia and parts of eastern suburbs of Athens burning, thousands fled and hundreds of homes and businesses went up in flames, along with tens of thousands of acres (hectares) of forest.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said on Saturday the rash of forest fires "can't be a coincidence". He vowed the culprits would be found and punished implying arsonists were responsible for the deadly blazes since Friday.
"All regions of the country are declared in a state of emergency in order to mobilise all means and forces to face this disaster," he said in a televised address to the nation.
Politicians interrupted campaigning for a September election, flags were ordered to fly at half mast for a three-day mourning period and Karamanlis said Greece was suffering an "indescribable national tragedy".
Church bells tolled as hundreds of villages were evacuated and residents used garden hoses and buckets in a futile effort to save their homes from the raging fires.
"The fire is racing towards the town," a resident of the southern town of Aliveri on Evia told Greek television. "We are leaving or else we will burn to death. There is no one to help us," the man said.
People fled in cars, trucks and boats, while ferries from Evia were taking people to the mainland near Athens.
Ash blanketed the centre of Athens, making breathing difficult, and fires fanned by strong winds raced through dozens of houses in the suburbs of Keratea and Kalyvia. Factories were also set ablaze.
"This is complete hell," Kalyvia mayor Petros Filippou told reporters. "The front is 30 km long and has now reached the first houses. That's it."
Police evacuated a monastery and closed the motorway from the capital to the main airport for several hours.
The fire department said the official death toll had risen to 47, including several children. More were feared dead as many villages remained cut off by walls of flame.
Last Mod: 26 Ağustos 2007, 11:52
Rescuers said they had found bodies by the side of roads, in burned-out homes and in cars, including a mother still clutching her children.
Fires first broke out on Friday on the southern Peloponnese peninsula, scorching forests and olive groves, and soon spread to new fronts. Strong winds have hampered rescue efforts.
About 9,000 firefighters, helped by 500 soldiers, 1,800 fire engines, planes and helicopters were battling the fires and Greece called for help from its European Union partners.
At least 11 countries were sending firefighters, 14 planes and 11 helicopters to help fight the blazes. Most of them would be thrown into the effort at sunrise on Sunday, officials said.
Firefighters said there were about 100 forest fires around the country, though the Peloponnese was the worst hit region. Soaring temperatures, winds, drought and arson have been blamed for the unusual number of fires this summer.
"The situation across the country is extremely crucial and we should not expect signs of improvement at least through the night," fire brigade spokesman Nikos Diamantis told reporters.
Villages in most parts of the Peloponnese have been evacuated while others remain cut off. The fires stretch 160 km (100 miles) from the Ionian Sea in the west to Mani in the south and the Menalo mountain range in the heart of the peninsula.
"It looks like we'll have another night with fires raging unchecked," said Pantazis Chronopoulos, mayor of Zacharo, a hard-hit town once surrounded by a lush pine forest and picturesque villages on the west coast of the Peloponnese.
Karamanlis' conservative government has seen its popularity drop after criticism of its slow reaction to a spate of forest fires earlier this summer that killed 10 people.
On Saturday, he announced special financial relief measures for afflicted areas, while the socialist opposition PASOK party said it was offering 30 percent of its election campaign budget to the victims.
"Let politicians come here. Let them come and see what kind of votes they get," a man who stood watching his restaurant burn in Zacharo told Reuters TV.