Greeks besiege banks for wildfire compensation

Greeks besiege banks for wildfire compensation

30 August 2007

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Greece — Greeks on Thursday started burying relatives killed by wildfires and thousands scrambled to banks to collect compensation for damage caused by blazes still burning parts of the country for a sixth day.

Police arrested 15 people facing charges of fraud for claiming the instant 3,000 euros ($4,000) payment the government is handing out in the affected areas in a bid to show it is providing fast relief for the fires that have killed 63 people.

Less than three weeks before a parliamentary election, critics who slammed the conservative government’s chaotic reaction to the fires and said its compensation system was open to widespread fraud.

“This shames us as Greeks,” Dionysis Berezos, 67, told Reuters while standing with at least 400 people outside a bank in Pyrgos, a provincial capital in the stricken Peloponnese peninsula. “These people have come from Athens and have nothing to do with the area.”

Some people admitted they had come from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki, which is some 600 km (370 miles) north.

“Hundreds of gypsies have come here who don’t live here,” said Gerasimos Halilopoulos, a Roma from Pyrgos, told Reuters. “It is making my life difficult because I need the money.”

The system requires filling out a simple form, which will be checked later, to get the money and Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the simplified system was the right thing.

“The order is ‘move fast’, without any delay. We’re removing bureaucratic hurdles. Nothing should stand in the way of us doing our duty,” he told a newsbriefing.

Elections ahead

The government’s handling of the crisis could be crucial for Karamanlis’s hopes for re-election on September 16.

A cartoon in the centre-right daily Kathimerini newspaper showed a helicopter flying over scorched countryside dropping banknotes from a water bucket while the pilot says: “Yes prime minister, as agreed, we’re dropping 100-euro bills so the land will turn green again.” 

Vast swathes of countryside have burned and more than 500 homes were razed in what have been Europe’s most extensive wildfires in a decade, according to the European Space Agency.

Of the 63 dead, 38 bodies were so badly burned that they could only be identified by DNA testing.

In the village of Anilio, hundreds gathered to bury a forest warden who lost his life trying to save a mother and her four children from the flames, only five days into the job. The woman was found dead, the bodies of her children in her arms.

“He was a hero. A great person, very generous with other people and a hard worker,” lamented Father Constantinos Grammatikopoulos, who led the funeral service.

On Thursday some fires raged on in the western Peloponnese and the island of Evia, north of Athens, and the fire brigade said they were still evacuating villages.

The government said the fires would cost Greece at least 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) but not derail the country’s budget deficit cutting efforts. Athens said it planned to tap European Union emergency aid.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Greece would not be left alone in its hour of need.

“This is also a European disaster,” he said in a statement. “At this sad time it is good to stress that solidarity is at the heart of European vision.”

Foreign Minister Dora thanked foreign ambassadors to Athens for their countries’ firefighting help and said Greece will make sure Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which was licked by the flames, would be fully restored.

The government has said arsonists started the fires and most Greeks believe rogue developers are burning forests to make way for new construction.

“We are determined that not the smallest piece of land will not be reforested. Nobody will build on burnt land,” Bakoyanni said.

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