Cyprus mountain villagers in shock after deadly wildfire

Arakapas (Chypre) (AFP) –


Villagers in the Troodos mountains of Cyprus looked in shock Sunday at their blackened hillsides after a deadly fire fanned by high temperatures and strong winds.

Vaso Christosol, a woman in her 50s, recounted her hasty retreat with her daughter in their car as the flames closed in Saturday on her village of Odos, in the southern foothills of the Troodos range.

"My husband told me: 'Take our daughter and go'," she said. "We told the authorities but unfortunately help was late in coming."

Firefighters stumbled across the bodies of four Egyptian workers killed in the blaze just a few hundreds metres (yards) outside the village.

Their burnt-out vehicle had plunged down a ravine and the bodies found some 600 metres away.

A policeman at the scene told AFP they appeared to have fled the vehicle on foot but run in the direction of the wind-fanned flames, in a doomed attempt to escape.

With the main fire brought largely under control on Sunday, Akis Giorgiou said he had stayed to protect his home five kilometres (three miles) away in the hamlet of Arakapas.

"Everything was a nightmare and pure hell here, the village was surrounded by fire," said the 45-year-old.

The fire damaged or destroyed around 50 homes, many of them in Arakapas, the interior ministry said.

Heat and smoke from the blaze killed tens of thousands of chickens at a farm near the village of Ora, on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountains, an AFP photographer reported.

- 'Never seen anything like it' -

President Nicos Anastasiades said more than 50 square kilometres (20 square miles) of forest and farmland had been destroyed.

"I cried when I saw what happened to the landscape," said Andria, a 30-year-old native of Arakapas.

"I'm still in shock," she said, hands shaking over a cup of coffee in the village taverna.

Eighty-year-old villager Giorgou Herculis broke down in tears.

"It was the worst fire in my life. I'd never seen anything like it. It was terrible," he said.

After several hours of combating the blaze with the aid of helicopters and fire-fighting planes, civil defence workers warned that the smouldering hillsides could re-ignite in case of a return of high winds.

Italy and Greece sent planes to help, while Israel deployed a C-130 Hercules and two "Air Tractor" firefighting aircraft.

Britain, which has military bases on Cyprus, deployed two search and rescue helicopters.

A 67-year-old farmer was arrested and remanded in custody on suspicion of starting the blaze, a charge he denied.

He was seen by an eyewitness leaving the village of Arakapas in his car at the same time the fire started, police said.