ND finds itself in the firing line over blazes

As firefighters yesterday finally extinguished the last embers of a spate of forest fires that had raged through the northeastern suburbs of Athens for four days, the country’s beleaguered conservative government faced an onslaught of criticism from environmentalists and the political opposition over its handling of the disaster. As local authorities started the thankless task of damage assessment, preliminary estimates put the losses at some 21,000 hectares of charred forestland and 150 destroyed homes. The impact of this destruction on the public, reflected in furious newspaper headlines, has reportedly convinced Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to carry out a planned Cabinet reshuffle earlier than scheduled, sources told Kathimerini. The reshuffle had been due around mid-September, after the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), but is now expected before the curtain rises on TIF on September 4 and maybe even this week. In the meantime the main opposition PASOK party is set to present its own plan for the protection of the country’s dwindling forestland. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros yesterday stressed that the government was committed to protecting Greek forests. Echoing the words of Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias, he stressed that «where there was forest, there will be forest again.» But ecologists and residents in areas affected by the blazes were unconvinced. A pressure group including conservation organization WWF Hellas and two citizens’ associations appealed to Souflias to postpone the scheduled approval of a new presidential decree ostensibly for the protection of Mount Hymettus. The group insisted on a review of the decree which, it says, «does not provide any safeguards for the mountain’s protection.» Ecologists warned that, apart from clearing the way for developers, the fire damage also created a serious risk of landslides and heavy flooding.