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Archive for July, 2018

Wildfires in Greece kill 74 in deadliest blazes in decades

July 24, 2018

RAFINA, Greece (AP) — The death toll from Greece’s deadliest wildfires in decades climbed to 74 Tuesday as rescue crews searched on land and sea for those who sought to escape the blazes that engulfed popular summer resort spots near Athens.

The number of victims appeared set to go even higher, with crews checking charred homes and vehicles and the coast guard scouring beaches and deeper waters. There was no definitive count of the missing.

Fueled by 80 kph (50 mph) winds that frequently changed direction, the fires — one to the west of Athens near the town of Kineta and another to the northeast near the port of Rafina — spread at speeds that surprised many, trapping hundreds on beaches and cutting off escape routes.

All the casualties appeared to be from the fire near Rafina, a popular seaside area that is a mix of permanent residences and vacation homes. The blaze broke out Monday afternoon during a hot, dry spell but the cause was not immediately clear. Aerial photos showed charred swathes of forest and homes.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared three days of national mourning. Apart from the dead, which included children, hospitals treated 187 people, most for burns, with 10 listed in serious condition.

Although it had abated by Tuesday afternoon, the blaze was far from extinguished and more than 230 firefighters were still trying to put it out, helped by volunteers and water-dropping aircraft. Another five fires continued to burn, with flare-ups reported in the blaze near Kineta. Authorities ordered the evacuation of some communities as a preventive measure.

Authorities urged the public to contact them about the missing. Many took to social media, posting photos and what was believed to be their last location before the fires hit. Twenty-six of the dead were found after dawn Tuesday, huddled in a compound near the sea in the community of Mati, the worst-hit area near Rafina, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Athens.

Red Cross rescuers said they appeared to be families or groups of friends because they were found hugging in groups of threes and fours. Hundreds of homes and cars were believed to have been burned. Many vehicles were found with the keys still in the ignition and doors open, a sign of the urgency with which their occupants sought to flee the flames. Narrow roads quickly became jammed, forcing many to try to escape on foot. The ferocity of the fire melted cars’ metal hub caps.

Many ran to beaches, but even there the fire got so close and the smoke was so thick that dozens swam out to sea despite the rough weather. Coast guard and private boats picked up more than 700 survivors from beaches and the sea — but also recovered six bodies.

“It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” said Nikos Stavrinidis, who had gone with his wife to fix up his summer home for a visit by his daughter.

Stavrinidis, his wife and four friends swam out to sea to escape the smoke, but they quickly became disoriented, losing sight of shore and being swept out farther by the wind and currents. Two of his group didn’t survive.

“It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not being able to help him,” Stavrinidis said, his voice breaking. The rest of the survivors were picked up by a fishing boat with an Egyptian crew who jumped into the water to rescue them.

Rafina’s dock became a makeshift hospital overnight as paramedics examined survivors, some wearing only their bathing suits, after being dropped off by rescue boats. Rafina Mayor Evangelos Bournous said his home had burned down and his family escaped by going into the sea.

The speed of the fires caught many by surprise. “Everything happened in seconds,” said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound in Mati where the 26 bodies were found. “I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea.”

Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours. “It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere,” he said. Among the survivors was former Greek Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga.

“The police tried to direct us away from the fire, but we couldn’t escape it,” she said. “We got stuck in traffic and the flames were on top of us. We managed to find a small gap and we made it out.” Local officials provided housing, food and clothes for those affected.

Greece sought help in fighting the fires from the European Union. Spain sent two firefighting aircraft, while Cyprus sent in 60 firefighters. Israel, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy and Germany also offered assistance.

Over the two days, 47 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said. Heavy rain was forecast Wednesday across southern Greece, and there was hope that could help firefighters.

Forest fires are common during Greece’s hot, dry summers and temperatures recently reached up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). In 2007, more than 60 people were killed when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.

Becatoros reported from Athens. Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.

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Bodies found clasped in hugs as Greek wildfires kill 50

July 24, 2018

RAFINA, Greece (AP) — Wildfires raged through seaside resorts near the Greek capital, torching homes, cars and forests and killing at least 50 people, authorities said Tuesday. Twenty-six of the dead were believed to be groups of families or friends who were found huddled together, some of them hugging.

Rescue crews were searching the charred remains of homes and cars in the deadliest of the fires, the one in the Rafina area northeast of Athens, and there were fears the death toll could rise. More than 170 people were treated in hospitals for injuries including burns.

The country’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, declared three days of national mourning for those killed in the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade. With the flames whipped up by gale-force winds that frequently changed direction, many tourists and residents fled toward the coastline. Some swam out to sea, braving rough water and strong currents to escape the ferocious flames and choking smoke. A flotilla of boats, including some from the coast guard, evacuated more than 700 people by sea from threatened beaches overnight, authorities said.

“It happened very fast. The fire was in the distance, then sparks from the fire reached us. Then the fire was all around us,” said resident Nikos Stavrinidis, who had gone with his wife to fix up his summer home for a visit by his daughter.

Stavrinidis, his wife and four friends swam out into the sea to escape the smoke, but they quickly became disoriented, losing sight of the shore and being swept out further by the wind and currents. Two of the group didn’t survive.

“It is terrible to see the person next to you drowning and not being able to help him,” Stavrinidis said, his voice breaking. The remaining survivors were picked up by a fishing boat with an Egyptian crew who jumped into the water to rescue them.

Others never made it to the beach. The head of Greece’s Red Cross, Nikos Oikonomopoulos, told Skai television that a Red Cross rescue team found 26 bodies in a compound northeast of Athens, some of them clutching each other in groups of threes and fours.

“Everything happened in seconds,” said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound. “I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea.” Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours.

“It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere,” he said. When the flames died down, Spyros Hadjiandreou came searching for loved ones. “My niece and cousin were staying here on holiday. I don’t know if they made it out,” he said. “I don’t know if they are OK. I haven’t heard from them.”

The death toll stood at 50 by Tuesday morning, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said. By early afternoon, the Health Ministry’s emergency operations said 71 adults continued to be hospitalized, 10 of them in serious condition. Twenty-three children were also being treated for injuries in hospitals, none of them in serious condition.

The two largest wildfires — one 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Athens near Rafina, the other 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the capital in Kineta — broke out Monday during hot, dry summer conditions. Fanned by gale-force winds, the flames spread rapidly into seaside towns, moving too fast for many who were in their cars or homes to flee, fire department spokeswoman Stavroula Malliri said.

“The police tried to direct us away from the fire, but we couldn’t escape it,” said Aleka Papariga, a former Greek Communist Party leader who lives near Rafina. “We got stuck in traffic and the flames were on top of us. We managed to find a small gap and we made it out.”

Evangelos Bournous, the mayor of Rafina, blamed the winds. “We were unlucky,” he said. “The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes.” Tzanakopoulos said 715 people were evacuated from beaches and the coastline by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats. The coast guard said 19 people were rescued at sea, some of whom had swum out to escape the flames.

Rafina’s dock became a makeshift hospital during the night as paramedics checked survivors, some clad in only their bathing suits, who emerged from coast guard vessels and private boats. In all, 47 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece on Monday and early Tuesday, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said. Ten were still burning late Tuesday morning, including blazes in Corinth, Crete and in central and northern Greece.

More than 400 firefighters and volunteer firefighters were battling the two fires near Athens, supported by seven water-dropping helicopters and three aircraft. Greece sought international help through the European Union. Spain was sending two firefighting aircraft while Cyprus was sending in 60 firefighters. Israel and Turkey both also offered assistance.

Heavy rain was forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday, with hopes they could help in the firefighting effort. Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently reached up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

In 2007, more than 60 people were killed when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.

Becatoros reported from Athens. Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

Death toll set to rise in Greek seaside wildfires

July 24, 2018

RAFINA, Greece (AP) — The death toll from twin wildfires that raged through Greek seaside areas looked set to increase to around 50 Tuesday after rescue crews reported finding the bodies of more than 20 people huddled closely together near a beach northeast of the capital, Athens.

Greece sought international help through the European Union as fires on either side of Athens left lines of cars torched, charred farms and forests, and sent hundreds of people racing to beaches to be evacuated by navy vessels, yachts and fishing boats.

The official death toll stood at 24 early Tuesday. Authorities said that more than 100 people were injured, including 11 in serious condition. They could not immediately confirm reports of many more deaths, but rescue crews working through the charred areas where the fire had passed through to the northeast of Athens told local media that at first light, they had found the bodies of more than 20 people gathered in one place near a beach.

The head of Greece’s Red Cross, Nikos Oikonomopoulos, told Skai television a member of a Red Cross rescue team had told him the crew had found 26 bodies, apparently families, huddled tightly together, many of them hugging.

Merchant Marine deputy minister Nektarios Santorinios, whose ministry is in charge of the coast guard, said more than 700 people had been evacuated by sea by the coast guard. Winds reached 80 kph (50 mph) as authorities deployed the country’s entire fleet of water-dropping planes and helicopters to give vacationers time to escape. Military drones remained in the air in the high winds to help officials direct more than 600 firefighters on the ground.

“We were unlucky. The wind changed and it came at us with such force that it razed the coastal area in minutes,” said Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the port town of Rafina, a sleepy mainland port that serves Greek holiday islands.

The dock area became a makeshift hospital as paramedics checked survivors, some of them clad in only their bathing suits, when they came off coast guard vessels and private boats. The operation continued through the night.

At daybreak Tuesday, Ambulance Service deputy director Miltiadis Mylonas said the number of casualties was likely to rise as the more gutted homes and cars were checked. “It took people by surprise and the events happened very fast. Also, the fires broke out on many fronts, so all these factors made the situation extremely difficult,” he said.

“The task we face now is organizing the identification of victims by members of their families.” The fire posed no immediate threat to Greece’s famed ancient monuments, but as it raged inland, children’s’ summer camps and holiday homes were hastily abandoned. Fleeing drivers clogged highways into the capital, hampering the firefighting effort, and flecks of ash swirled onto central Athens.

It was the deadliest fire season to hit Greece in more than a decade. More than 60 people were killed in 2007 when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region. “It’s a difficult night for Greece,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after cutting short a trip to Bosnia and returning to Athens.

Authorities said Cyprus and Spain offered assistance after the request for EU help was made. Greek Fire Service officials issued public pleas for residents in fire-affected areas to comply with evacuation orders and not stay on in an effort to save their homes.

Rafina’s mayor said he believed about 100 houses in that area had burned. The fire service was not able to confirm the figure. Showers that passed over the Greek capital Monday missed the two big fires — one at Rafina, 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the east, and the other at Kineta, 55 kilometers (35 miles) to the west. Heavy rain is forecast across southern Greece on Wednesday.

Forest fires are common in Greece during the hot, dry summers, and temperatures recently hit highs up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

London airports, trains disrupted by extreme weather

July 28, 2018

LONDON (AP) — Tourists and Britons hoping to go on vacation are enduring another day of travel trouble in Britain after severe weather led to flight cancellations and delays on cross-Channel trains. A week of extreme heat gave way to thunderstorms Friday, touching off travel delays on Saturday.

Budget airline Ryanair says Friday night’s thunderstorms, along with air traffic control staff shortages, led to 14 cancelled flights at Stansted Airport. Other London-area airports — Luton, Gatwick and Heathrow — also warned of delays.

Nats, the UK air traffic control service, says the unpredictable nature of the storms means aircraft are not able to fly their usual routes. The service says the thunderstorms “effectively block large swathes of airspace because aircraft cannot fly through them.”

Eurotunnel passengers faced a third day of disruption on the cross-Channel service.

New UK Brexit chief: We may not pay exit fee if no deal

July 22, 2018

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s slow move away from the European Union took a new twist Sunday as the new Brexit chief suggested that Britain might not pay its 39 billion pound ($51 billion) divorce bill if no trade agreement with the European Union is reached.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told the Sunday Telegraph that there must be “conditionality” between Britain making the hefty exit payment and its ability to create a new relationship with the EU. “You can’t have one side fulfilling its side of the bargain and the other side not, or going slow, or failing to commit on its side,” he said, implying that the threat of withholding payment might get Brexit talks back on track.

Britain and the EU remain far apart on terms of a new trade setup. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is also deeply split over what Brexit policy to support. Raab replaced David Davis, who resigned two weeks ago to protest May’s “soft” Brexit plan.

May has faced a substantial rebellion from party colleagues who favor a complete break with the EU — a so-called “hard” Brexit — rather than May’s proposal, which calls for a “common rule book” with European nations that would govern trade in goods.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier is also lukewarm on May’s latest proposal, asking many questions about its viability Friday. Raab, however, says he is still hopeful a deal can be concluded by October so the EU parliament and national parliaments of EU nations can ratify the deal before Britain leaves in March.

“Actually the fact Michel Barnier is not blowing it out the water but asking questions is a good positive sign — that’s what we negotiate on,” Raab said, looking forward to more Brexit discussions Thursday in Brussels.

But former Prime Minister John Major warned that the hardliners in his own Conservative Party are making the situation worse. “The danger at the moment is that they will frustrate every move the government seeks to make and by accident, because nothing can be agreed, we will crash out without a deal,” he said on the BBC.

Major said holding a second referendum to gauge public sentiment now that more is known about the true impact of Brexit would be “morally justified” because Brexit advocates made so many inflated claims ahead of the June 2016 vote.

“If you look back at the Leave campaign, a great many of the promises they made were fantasy promises,” he said. “We now know they are not going to be met.”

Sweden sends home foreign firefighters as wildfires die down

July 30, 2018

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Foreign firefighters who helped their Swedish colleagues with raging wildfires in the past weeks have begun returning home as the fires die down, emergency authorities in Sweden said Monday.

Britta Ramberg, operative director of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, said firefighters from France, Germany and Portugal have been assisting in efforts against dozens of wildfires mostly in central, western and northern Sweden.

Residents from a small town near the Arctic Circle who had been evacuated because of the wildfires were allowed to return home Monday, Sweden’s TT news agency reported. Ramberg says local firefighters now could handle the several fires still remaining. She added a few of the international helpers and equipment would remain in Sweden.

On Monday, Sweden’s center-left government earmarked 1.2 billion kronor ($355 million) to the country’s farmers hit by the extremely dry weather. Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said the “crisis package” came after “a shortage of fodder for the animals … makes us feel very worried about the Swedish food supply.”

With focus on Mexico, apprehensions grow at Canadian border

July 24, 2018

DERBY LINE, Vt. (AP) — While the Trump administration fortifies the southern border, there’s growing concern over the number of foreigners entering the country illegally across the porous northern border with Canada.

People crossing the border between Vermont and Quebec have paid smugglers up to $4,000, usually payable when the immigrants reach their U.S. destination, according to officials and court documents. While the number of arrests is tiny compared with the southern border, the human smuggling is just as sophisticated.

“They are very well organized. They have scouted the area. They have scouted us,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Richard Ross. “Basically, we are not dealing with the JV team; this is the varsity.” Driving the increase here, officials say, is the ease of entry into Canada, where visas are no longer required for Mexicans, and a border that receives less scrutiny and resources than the southern border, where thousands fleeing violence in Central America are being detained.

In the Border Patrol sector that covers 300 miles (480 kilometers) of border with New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, agents have apprehended 324 people who crossed illegally from Canada so far this fiscal year, compared with 165 in all of 2017. Last month, agents apprehended 85 people across the three states, compared with 17 in June 2017 and 19 in June 2016, statistics show.

So far this fiscal year, there have been at least 267 apprehensions along Canada’s border with Vermont alone, compared with 132 all of last year, according to statistics compiled by federal prosecutors in Vermont.

The statistics show no corresponding spike in illegal immigration or apprehensions elsewhere along the northern frontier. Border Patrol agents speculate it’s because the area that includes Vermont is the first stretch of land border east of the Great Lakes and is a short drive from the population centers of Canada and the U.S. East Coast.

The northern border numbers are still small compared with the southern border. Federal statistics show that in fiscal 2017 there were 303,916 apprehensions on the U.S. border with Mexico, compared with 3,027 on the entire northern border.

Still, there is a growing sense of unease among U.S. law enforcement authorities. “The number of illegal alien apprehensions at the Vermont-Canada border has skyrocketed,” said Christina Nolan, Vermont’s U.S. attorney.

Much of the illegal border crossing activity in Vermont appears to be focused on a 30-mile (50-kilometer) segment of the Vermont-Quebec border where Interstate 91 reaches the Canadian border at Derby Line, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Montreal.

From Derby Line, it’s about a six-hour drive to New York and its teeming immigrant communities. Guarding the border here is tricky because Derby Line and the neighboring Quebec town of Stanstead comprise one community where homes and buildings happen to be bisected by an international border.

The community library was purposely built straddling the border to serve people in both communities. Quebecers simply cross an international boundary marked outside the library by pots of petunias. Occasionally, illegal border crossers will walk, or even drive, across near the library.

“This is really a town with an invisible border going through it,” said Stanstead resident Matthew Farfan, who has written a book about life along the border, after he left the library’s Vermont entrance and prepared to cross back into Canada.

As part of a broader recent immigration crackdown, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has set up highway checkpoints in Maine, New Hampshire and upstate New York. One person was apprehended in New York on charges she had picked up four people crossing from Canada.

Visa-less entry into Canada for countries like Mexico and Romania, another nationality noted by Nolan and Border Patrol agents as contributing to a spike in apprehensions, play a role by making the northern border more attractive for people seeking to enter the U.S. illegally, Nolan said. A plane ticket from Mexico City to Montreal or Toronto can cost less than $350.

The Canadian government in late 2016 lifted its requirement that Mexican citizens apply for visas to enter the country as part of broader efforts to strengthen ties with Mexico. A similar requirement for Romanian citizens took effect in late 2017.

Canada views the recent visa changes for Mexico and Romania as having a minimal impact on the border, said Beatrice Fenelon, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In the past two months, agents in Vermont have chased border crossers through the woods near Derby Line; there have been car chases and cases in which agents have lost sight of suspects in the woods, only to apprehend them days later.

“They have kind of gone southern-border style where they are taking a hike and they are coming through the tall grass,” Ross said. “It’s something I would have seen years ago when I worked in Harlingen, Texas.”

The agents won’t guess how many make it across. The flow of illegal border crossers goes in both directions. Since around the time President Donald Trump took office, thousands of immigrants in the U.S. have fled north to Canada seeking asylum.

Last October in the largest single case in memory of Border Patrol agents in the Derby Line area, 16 people were apprehended at a hotel after 14 had entered the United States west of Derby Line. The other two were the smugglers.

In another case east of Derby Line, a group of eight Mexican immigrants met at a McDonald’s restaurant in Montreal after flying into Toronto and Montreal, where they hired two taxis to take them to Stanhope, Quebec, not far from where Quebec meets Vermont and New Hampshire.

After the immigrants walked six hours through the forest, they were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Norton, Vermont, while riding in a taxi from Albany, New York, court documents say. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, responsible for border security in Canada, made arrests last month in two human-smuggling cases between Stanstead and Derby Line.

In one case, the suspect, a Mexican who did not have legal status in Canada, has been convicted of bringing immigrants to the Vermont border and was sentenced to six months in jail, after which he will be deported.

The Mounties are aware of the cases and ready to help their U.S. counterparts, said RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Camille Habel. But the RCMP doesn’t appear to view the problem with the same urgency as U.S. officials: “It’s not a trend yet,” Habel said.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto; Michael Hill in Derby Line, Vermont; and David Sharp in Portland, Maine.

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