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Cyprus firefighting mission to Greece called off (PICTURES)

A taskforce of firefighters from the Cyprus Fire Services, the Forestry Department and the Cyprus Civil Defence will not fly out to Greece to help tackle the blaze just north of Athens, the authorities in Cyprus have announced.

Firefighters had been battling wildfires raging northeast of Athens but it now appears the fire is being brought under control.

Cyprus offered a group of 60 firefighters and their equipment and a Greek air force plane arrived at Larnaca Airport on Tuesday to pick them up. The plane was meant to take off on Tuesday but a mechanical fault grounded the military aircraft.

The authorities in Greece were unable to send another military plane to Cyprus to collect the Cypriot firefighters. The plane was set to take off for Athens at 8.30am on Wednesday morning but the mission was cancelled at the last minute following consultations between the authorities in Cyprus and Greece,

According to Fire Service Chief Marcos Tragkolas, the Cypriot team were not set to be dispatched to the fire fronts due to their lack of experience of the terrain there.

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The fire started in Kalamos, a coastal holiday spot some 45 km northeast of the capital, and has spread to three more towns, damaging dozens of homes and burning thousands of hectares of pine forest. A state of emergency has been declared in the area.

“The blaze is advancing with great speed. Because of the scale and intensity of the wildfires, the country submitted a request for aerial means,” fire brigade spokeswoman Stavroula Maliri told a press briefing.

Three firefighting planes and six water-throwing helicopters operated through the day, assisting 210 firefighters and about 100 military personnel battling the blaze on the ground near the town of Kapandriti.

Rugged terrain dotted with small communities made the fire-fighting difficult, with winds rekindling the blaze at many spots. Thick, billowing smoke rendered operations from the air difficult.

Across Greece, firefighters were battling more than 55 forest fires, an outbreak fed by dry winds and hot weather that fanned blazes in the Peloponnese and on the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia.

On Zakynthos, an island popular with foreign tourists, a dozen fires burned for a fifth day. Authorities declared a state of emergency there on Monday. A government minister said there was no doubt the fires had been set deliberately.

“It’s arson according to an organised plan,” Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis, the member of parliament for Zakynthos, told state TV.

Late July and August often see outbreaks of forest and brush fires in Greece, where high temperatures help create tinder-box conditions.

In Kalamos, community president Dimitris Kormovitis told Reuters TV: “If we don’t manage to cut it off today, there will be terrible consequences. There has been devastation of a biblical scale in our area, which is one of the last lungs of the Attica region.”

Andreas Theodorou, a local councillor in Kalamos, said the blaze had damaged several dozen homes. “Help did not arrive fast enough, and if you don’t stop a forest fire so large as soon as it breaks out, it’s very hard to put it out,” he said.

In the Peloponnese region of Ilia, blazes that broke out in three areas on Monday and looked tamed early on Tuesday flared up again, fanned by winds. In 2007 the same area was the site of Greece’s worst fires, with more than 70 people killed.

“We asked for the evacuation of the village of Peristeri. The fire has gotten very close, it cannot be contained due to strong winds,” Ilia vice-prefect George Georgiopoulos told SKAI TV.

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