With devastating fires razing swaths of the country since last week, the government appeared to be in disarray on Monday as it scrambled to downplay comments by Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis and other senior officials who said the blazes were the result of an organized plan.
Aides to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the fires, which prompted authorities to call a state of emergency on the Ionian island of Zakynthos and damaged at least 20 homes north of Athens, were due to strong winds and antiquated firefighting infrastructure.
The aides made their comments after Kontonis said that the multiple fronts on Zakynthos were “planned” to create social disarray, while Greece’s fire service said there were “well-founded suspicions of foul play.”
“We had 15 fronts at the same time on Zakynthos. If this is not an organized plan of arson, then what is?” Kontonis said.
His remarks were backed up by a statement from the office of Zakynthos Mayor Pavlos Kolokotsas that claimed there were “clear indications that fires were caused by an organized campaign of arson.”
Arson linked to illegal development has been blamed for many fires across the country in recent years. But, fearing a backlash from fire victims and accusations from opposition parties that the government is somehow trying to absolve itself of responsibility by spinning conspiracy theories, the prime minister’s office tried to downplay the scenario of organized arson – in the process revealing cracks in the leftist-led’s government’s cohesion, and opening it up to criticism from the opposition.
New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotsakis had tweeted late Sunday night that it was time for “decisive and coordinated action and not conspiracy theories,” while in a statement the conservative party said that the government, by speaking of an organized plan, was trying to shift the public’s attention away from the real causes of the blazes.
For its part, socialist PASOK said that “once again,” the government’s “incompetence” was taking a huge toll on the country.
Overall, some 90 forest fires were recorded from Sunday to yesterday. The most serious blazes were near Athens, in the Peloponnese, on Zakynthos and on its Ionian neighbor Cephalonia.
In Attica, 200 firefighters were struggling late yesterday to stop the spread of a wildfire near the Greek capital with the aid of some 60 fire engines and five water-dropping aircraft.
The fire started on Sunday in the holiday resort of Kalamos, northeast of Athens, and, fanned by strong winds, its perimeter grew exponentially over dozens of kilometers of pine forest, threatening the towns of Varnavas, Aghioi Apostoloi and Kapandritis by early yesterday morning, with smoke visible from central Athens.
As a precaution two summer camps in the area, homes and a monastery were evacuated, while hundreds of residents in the wider Kalamos region sought refuge at the beach.