World and Nation

People Direct Criticisms at Greek Leaders Over Forest Fire Handling

The fires that tore omnivorously through scores of villages and olive groves here may now also be changing Greece’s political landscape: The government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, facing national elections next month, came under increasing criticism Tuesday, not only over its handling of the fires but also over whether it stoked Greeks’ fears about who might be to blame.

It is unclear whether the criticism will be enough to alter the outcome of the national elections on Sept. 16. But a new national poll showed the gap narrowing to less than 1 percent between Karamanlis’ New Democracy party and the socialist opposition party, Pasok.

The opposition leader, George A. Papandreou, is seizing on the anger, in an effort to sway the many undecided voters in a close race.

“Unfortunately, the government has proven ineffective,” he told reporters here on Tuesday. “It continues to act irresponsibly. It is busy fabricating conspiracy terror theories. The result: Greeks are being ridiculed abroad.”

He added, “Our nation cannot tolerate a government propped up on fear.”

Also on Tuesday, fire officials reported a second day of progress in battling the fires, including the most deadly ones on the Peloponnesian peninsula and the island of Evia north of the capital. With winds relatively still for a third day, and much help in place from foreign fire brigades, only one new death was reported Tuesday, that of a herdsman near Zaharo on the Peloponnesian peninsula who had been missing for several days.

The death toll now stands at 64 since Friday.

“The picture we have today gives us some relative optimism,” Nikolaos Diamantis, a fire service spokesman, told reporters here Tuesday. “We hope there’s nothing unexpected which will change our operational planning or cause problems. We believe we will have good results.”

On Saturday, as the death toll rose and Greek television broadcast live interviews with people trapped by fires — and with no immediate help — Karamanlis declared a national state of emergency. He also stated that he believed arson was the cause, saying that it “cannot be a coincidence” that so many fires started at the same time.

Then his public order minister, Vyron Polydoras, said Greece faced an “asymetrical threat” — a term that usually refers to small terrorist groups attacking a far larger target.

Past forest fires have indeed been set by arsonists, often property owners wanting to develop land set aside as forest. And without doubt, New Democracy’s suggestions dovetailed with conspiracy theories mouthed by many Greeks, in a political culture full of conspiracy.

Some speculated that it might be the work of Greece’s age-old nemesis Turkey or a home-grown, or possibly even foreign, terrorist group. One man in the hard-hit western Peloponnesian peninsula even suggested that it was a conspiracy between the government and makers of particle board for cheap wood.