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Thousands flee raging wildfires in Greece

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ATHENS, Greece — A partial drop in gale-force winds early Monday offered hard-pressed Greek firefighters a brief respite after wildfires raged unchecked for two days north of Athens, burning houses and swathes of forest while forcing thousands to flee their homes.

But Fire Brigade officials cautioned that the fires still threatened inhabited areas on the capital's northern fringes, the eastern coastal town of Nea Makri and nearby Marathon – site of one of history's most famous battlegrounds.

"There are fewer hazardous points," Fire Brigade spokesman Yiannis Kappakis said. "But the blaze is still developing."

Several houses were gutted but there were no reports of deaths or injuries. There was huge damage to the countryside, however, with thousands of hectares of the area's rapidly dwindling forests gone.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the fire – one of more than 90 that broke out across Greece over the weekend – was hard to tame.

"The situation remains very difficult," he said after a fire brigade briefing. "The enormous (firefighting) effort will continue on all fronts throughout the night."

In Nea Makri, south of Marathon, local authorities said blaze stretching for 2.5-miles (four-kilometers) was tearing down a hillside towards some houses, and a dozen nuns were evacuated from a nearby Christian Orthodox convent.

"The situation is tragic right now, there's a huge fire coming our way" Nea Makri mayor Iordanis Loizos said. "There is nothing we can do ... but wait for the (water-dropping) planes at dawn."

Water-dropping aircraft were to resume operations at first light Monday, assisted by aircraft from France, Italy and Cyprus. More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers are fighting the blaze on the ground.

Officials have not said what started the fire. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and many are set intentionally – often by unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

In many afflicted areas, despairing residents pleaded for firefighters and equipment that were nowhere to be seen.

On Sunday, thousands of residents of Athens' northern outskirts evacuated their homes, fleeing in cars or on foot. The fire destroyed several houses as it advanced across an area more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) in circumference.

Six major fires were burning early Monday across Greece. The Athens blaze started north of Marathon plain, and spread over Mount Penteli – on the city's limit to the north – threatening outlying suburbs.

Driven by gale-force winds, the blaze grew fastest near Marathon, from which the long-distance foot race takes its name, born from a legendary run after the 490 B.C Athenian victory over an invading Persian army.

A guard at the nearby Museum of Marathon said the fire at one point came within 50 yards (meters) of the building, whose exhibits include weapons and skeletons from the battle. However, its main front was moving south toward Nea Makri.

The fire also threatened the ancient fortress town of Rhamnus, home to two 2,500-year-old temples.

The mayor of Marathon said he had been "begging the government to send over planes and helicopters" to no avail.

"There are only two fire engines here; three houses are already on fire and we are just watching helplessly," mayor Spyros Zagaris told Greek TV.

Zagaris was among several local leaders who accused the government of having no plan to fight the fire.

Finance Minister Yiannis Papathanassiou responded: "This is not the time for criticism under these tragic conditions. We are fighting a difficult fight."

Another official said emergency workers were exhausted.

"The firefighters, soldiers and volunteers fighting the fire are tired and their equipment is being used constantly and there is fatigue there too," said deputy Interior Minister Christos Markoyiannakis.

Opposition politicians have been restrained in their criticism so far.

But both Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga and Giorgos Karatzaferis, head of populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally, said the government had learned nothing from the catastrophic summer fires of 2007, when 76 people died and several villages were totally destroyed in southern Greece.

A shift in wind helped halt the flames in the town of Agios Stefanos, a township on the fringes of Athens on the opposite side of Mount Penteli from Marathon. Most of its 10,000 inhabitants had evacuated Sunday afternoon. By nightfall, the town was empty, authorities said.

About 58 square miles (37,000 acres or 15,000 hectares) of forest, brush and olive groves have burned, according to Athens prefect Yiannis Sgouros. The highly flammable pine forests around Athens' northern suburbs helped the fire spread.

Sgouros said the full extent of the damage would take days to estimate.

Authorities evacuated two large children's hospitals, as well as campsites and homes in villages and outlying suburbs threatened by blazes that scattered ash across Athens. The flames also threatened a large monastery on Mount Penteli.

Elsewhere in Greece, serious fires were reported on the islands of Evia and Skyros in the Aegean Sea and Zakynthos in the west. Another large fire that started Saturday near the town of Plataea, 40 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Athens, was spreading unchecked toward a coastal resort in western Attica.