Ukraine firefighters beat back fatal forest blazes


Smolyaninove (Ukraine) (AFP)

Forest fires in eastern Ukraine that have killed five people and left dozens homeless are being brought under control by firefighters, officials said on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the situation was improving and he had seen no new fires during a fly-over with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials.

The blaze began on Monday in Lugansk region and engulfed Smolyaninove, a village just 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the front line of Ukraine's war with Russia-backed separatists.

More than 1,200 firefighters, rescue workers and National Guard are fighting fires in three locations, Avakov said.

Firefighting planes were also dispatched despite fears that pro-Russian separatists could shoot them down.

More than 100 homes have been destroyed entirely in two villages, with dozens more damaged, according to the ministry.

An AFP correspondent in Smolyaninove saw animal corpses and charred buildings with their windows panes melted and gardens burned.

The village was enveloped in thick smoke with flames still visible in nearby forests on Wednesday.

- 'No threat' -

"I am 70 years old and I have nothing left," Viktor, a villager whose house completely burned down, told AFP.

"I have never seen that in my life," said Vassyl, a rescuer, dousing water over a smouldering fire in the charred remains of a house.

Avakov said the wind had died down since Tuesday, making it easier to battle the blaze.

"We flew over the site and we did not see any additional fires... We do not see a threat," he said.

At least nine people including two children have been hospitalised, the interior ministry has said.

The ministry said on Tuesday six people had died as a result of the fires, but revised the death toll down to five.

An official told AFP on the condition of anonymity that there was "confusion" over the numbers and that the figure could rise with some people unaccounted for.