Greek firefighters battle major blazes on multiple fronts

Wildfire rages in a forest in Sikorahi, near Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, on August 23, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 23 August 2023
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Greek firefighters battle major blazes on multiple fronts

  • In the last two days, 19 people believed to be migrants — including two children — have been killed in forest blazes
  • Hundreds of firefighters were battling on two major fronts, one near Athens and the other in northeastern Greece

ATHENS: Greek firefighters on Wednesday struggled to contain uncontrolled fires throughout the country for a fifth day, several of them bordering an acrid, smoke-filled Athens.
In the last two days, 19 people believed to be migrants — including two children — have been killed in forest blazes.
Hundreds of firefighters were battling on two major fronts, one near Athens and the other in northeastern Greece, in addition to several other smaller fires.
One fire fanned by strong winds ripped through the foothills of Mount Parnitha, the largest forest adjoining the capital, burning near the outskirts of a national park.
“The situation in Parnitha is extremely critical,” Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias told a news conference.
The European Commission said 246 firefighters, 40 vehicles and eight aircraft from eight member states had been sent to help.
Evacuations were ordered on Wednesday morning for several settlements on the outskirts of the capital, including three nursing homes.
The blaze damaged homes in the northwestern Athens district of Menidi, and briefly threatened an army camp.
“Many people don’t want to leave their homes,” Nikos Kountromichalis, a Hellenic Red Cross organizer, told state TV ERT in Menidi.
“We found some elderly people who had fainted in their own yards,” he said, adding that his team had treated several residents for burns and respiratory problems.
Fires have already destroyed homes and properties in the nearby suburbs of Hasia and Fyli.
A migrant detention center in Amygdaleza, north of Athens, was also evacuated.
Another fire in Boeotia, north of Athens, came perilously close to a UNESCO-listed Byzantine monastery.
Greek firefighters have battled over 350 fires over the last five days, including over 200 in the last 48 hours, Kikilias said.
Nearly a hundred were currently unchecked, the fire service said.
Fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said 140 people had been arrested on suspicion of arson, most of it accidental.
Most cases were related to welding and agricultural work that ignored high-risk weather warnings.
“It’s an unprecedented situation, this is not a figure of speech,” he said.
Kikilias said the country was going through the worst summer of fires since fire-risk maps were introduced in 2009.
He noted that the number of fire emergency warnings issued this year were “twice as many as in 2021, four times those of 2019 and seven times those of 2012.”
In 32 years of service “I’ve never seen such extreme conditions,” Greek fire department chief Yiorgos Pournaras told reporters, noting that even during the night winds remained high.
The Parnitha fire had spread even though water bombers were on-site in minutes, Pournaras said.
The Greek capital woke up Wednesday to the smell of scorched earth and thick black smoke covering the sky.
“Unfortunately, the wind does not help at all,” Stathis Topalidis, deputy mayor of Menidi, told state TV ERT.
On Tuesday, authorities ordered the evacuation of Ano Liosia in northwest Athens — a district of over 25,000 people — although several stayed at their houses to try and protect their properties.
Flames continued to spread unchecked for a fifth day in the northeastern region of Evros, close to the Turkish border in Alexandroupolis and the Dadia forest, and home to rare birds of prey.
More evacuations were ordered in the region overnight.
Unfounded rumors and allegations have also been spreading rapidly on social media blaming migrants for responsibility for the outbreak of the fires.
Greece’s Supreme Court Prosecutor on Wednesday ordered local officials to investigate both the causes of the catastrophic fire and alleged claims of racism toward migrants.
Greek authorities on Tuesday arrested three people in northern Greece who had forced undocumented migrants into a cargo trailer, accusing them of being responsible for the fires.
Twenty people have been killed in this week’s wildfire wave.
Eighteen people including two children were found dead Tuesday in a forest fire near the Turkish border, north of Alexandroupolis.
As no local residents had been reported missing “the possibility that they are people who entered our country illegally is under investigation,” fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said in a televised address.
Another person believed to be a migrant was found dead in a nearby forest on Monday. An elderly shepherd had been found earlier Monday in central Greece.
Over 40,000 hectares (nearly 99,000 acres) were destroyed in wildfires in just three days from August 19 to 21, according to a report by the National Observatory of Athens.
The very hot and dry conditions which increase the fire risk will persist until Friday, according to meteorologists.


Eight in hospital after reports of ‘odour’ at Sweden intel service

Updated 24 February 2024
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Eight in hospital after reports of ‘odour’ at Sweden intel service

  • Images from the scene showed police wearing gas masks alongside several ambulances and emergency vehicles
  • After ending their emergency operation, police said they had started an investigation into “causing bodily harm” but did not have any suspects

STOCKHOLM: Police opened an investigation Friday after a suspicious odour at Sweden’s Security Service office left eight people needing hospital treatment with respiratory symptoms.
Images from the scene showed police wearing gas masks alongside several ambulances and emergency vehicles as an area around the office of the agency, known as Sapo, was closed off.
“Around 1:00 p.m. today, there were indications that there was a dangerous substance at Sapo’s offices,” Patrik Soderberg, chief physician at the local health care authority Region Stockholm, told AFP.
“A total of eight people with symptoms have been treated at hospital,” Region Stockholm said in a statement, adding that the “cause of the leak was still unclear.”
After ending their emergency operation, police said they had started an investigation into “causing bodily harm” but did not have any suspects.
Police said an area of “a couple of hundred meters” around the building had been closed off after “a potential gas leak.”
Some of those taken to hospital were officers who had “smelled an odour when they arrived,” the service added in a statement.
Sapo spokeswoman Karin Lutz told AFP the intelligence agency had called emergency services after receiving an alarm.
Lutz said the building had been “partly evacuated” during the emergency but declined to give further details or comment on whether they suspected foul play.
In a later statement, Sapo said “emergency services ended the operation after confirming that there was no gas inside the premises or outside the building.”
The Nordic country is on high alert as it is expecting to clear the final hurdle to its bid to join NATO on Monday, with the last holdout Hungary scheduled to vote on ratifying its membership.
The Aftonbladet newspaper said witnesses had reported smelling something that reminded them of paint, and that locals had been told to close their windows.
Swedish media also reported that a gas sensor on the roof of the building had alerted the presence of phosgene, but these reports have not been confirmed.
The gas was used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I, but is also widely used in industry for the production of plastics and pesticide.


Ukraine military destroys Russian surveillance plane — air force commander

Updated 23 February 2024
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Ukraine military destroys Russian surveillance plane — air force commander

  • The A-50 was downed over Russian territory, between the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar
  • The operation was carried out by the air force and the intelligence directorate

KYIV: Ukraine’s military on Friday destroyed a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft, Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said, the second time in a little more than a month that Ukraine has reported downing the sophisticated plane.
“The A-50 with the call sign ‘Bayan’ has flown its last!” Oleshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted military sources as saying the A-50 was downed over Russian territory, between the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar. The operation was carried out, it said, by the air force and the intelligence directorate.
Russian news agencies quoted emergency services in southern Krasnodar region as saying that fragments of an aircraft were found in marshland in Kanevskoy district and firefighters extinguished a blaze.
The report made no reference to the A-50.
Ukraine’s military in January said its air force destroyed a Russian Beriev A-50 surveillance plane and an Ilyushin Il-22 airborne command post in the Sea of Azov.
The A-50, which first came into service near the end of the Soviet era, is a large airborne early warning and control aircraft that can scan several hundred kilometers for enemy aircraft, ships and missiles.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, told the Financial Times a month ago that Russia had eight A-50s at that time.


Spanish politician shot in Madrid points finger at Iran

Updated 23 February 2024
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Spanish politician shot in Madrid points finger at Iran

  • Alejo Vidal-Quadras was shot in the face in broad daylight near his home in the upscale Salamanca neighbourhood on November 9 by a motorcycle passenger
  • "I have no doubt that it was the Iranian regime," the 78-year-old, who was European Parliament vice-president between 2009 and 2014, told a news conference

MADRID: A right-wing Spanish politician who was shot in November in Madrid on Friday accused Iran of being behind his attempted murder during his first public appearance since the attack.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a founder of Spain's far-right Vox party and former head of its centre-right People's Party in Catalonia who has long supported Iran's opposition movement, was shot in the face in broad daylight near his home in the upscale Salamanca neighbourhood on November 9 by a motorcycle passenger.
"I have no doubt that it was the Iranian regime," the 78-year-old, who was European Parliament vice-president between 2009 and 2014, told a news conference in the Spanish capital.
Tehran has "a long tradition, a track record, of extraterritorial terrorist activities" against "dissidents and against foreigners who support then," he added, without offering any proof to back up his claim.
Four people have been arrested as part of the investigation into the shooting, but the suspected gunman -- a French national of Tunisian origin with several previous convictions in France, remains at large.
Police have not commented on a possible motive for the shooting.
Vidal-Quadras, who already pointed the finger at Iran when he was questioned by police after the shooting, said it was a "miracle" that he survived.
"I made a movement of my head that meant that the shot, which was supposed to be fatal, was not," he said.
The bullet entered one side of his jaw and exited the other, and Vidal-Quadras spent time in hospital recovering from a jaw fracture.
"The detonation sounded like a thunderclap in my head, in fact I have a perforated eardrum, and I started bleeding, it caused a puddle on the floor," he said.
Vidal-Quadras said he believes the quick intervention of a passer-by, who stopped the bleeding with a piece of clothing, saved his life.
He said he has suffered from after-effects since the shooting, including "some paralysis of the facial muscles".
Vidal-Quadras, a top member of the International Committee in Search of Justice which supports the "Iranian resistance", has long called for the international community to harden its position towards Iran.


Five migrants die as boat capsizes during rescue off Malta

Updated 23 February 2024
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Five migrants die as boat capsizes during rescue off Malta

  • Some 21 migrants were rescued and taken to a migrant center
  • They are believed to be from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt

VALLETTA, Malta: Five migrants, including a woman, died when their boat capsized as they were being rescued off Malta on Friday, the island’s armed forces said.
Another eight were injured and taken to hospital, including two who swallowed a considerable amount of seawater and fuel.
Armed Forces of Malta deputy commander Col. Edric Zahra told reporters that the incident happened at about midday when the eight-meter (26-ft) boat was four miles (6.5 km) south of Malta.
Some 21 migrants were rescued and taken to a migrant center. They are believed to be from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt.
Mediterranean sea crossings from North Africa to Italy or Malta are among the most dangerous migration routes in the world. Last year almost 2,500 migrants died or went missing on those routes, the International Organization for Migration says.
The vast majority of migrants head for Italy. Malta’s armed forces rescued 380 migrants at sea last year, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said in parliament in January.


Russia says its forces push further west after taking Ukraine’s Avdiivka

Updated 23 February 2024
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Russia says its forces push further west after taking Ukraine’s Avdiivka

  • Russian forces had also destroyed a number of Western-provided Ukrainian weapons
  • The frontlines in the war had not shifted substantially since late 2022 before the taking of Avdiivka

MOSCOW: Russian forces have advanced further to the west after taking control of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, the defense ministry said on Friday.
It said Russian forces had also destroyed a number of Western-provided Ukrainian weapons in the past week including seven British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, a US Patriot anti-aircraft guided missile and launch vehicle, and 42 HIMARS rockets fired by multiple launch systems.
Reuters could not independently verify battlefield reports.
The frontlines in the war, which started two years ago on Saturday, had not shifted substantially since late 2022 before the taking of Avdiivka, and Russia still controls just under a fifth of Ukrainian territory.
The capture of Avdiivka, following months of fighting with heavy casualties on both sides, was Russia’s first significant gain since taking the city of Bakhmut last May.
After taking Avdiivka, units of the “Center” group of Russian forces “continued advancing in a westerly direction,” the defense ministry statement said.
“In cooperation with aviation and artillery, they defeated accumulations of manpower and equipment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces” in six nearby settlements, it said.