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Mediterranean rim countries battle to contain wildfires

Rome — Firefighters battled blazes in five countries along the northern Mediterranean rim Sunday, slowly gaining the upper hand after an exhausting week that has seen eight people killed.

Tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of countryside have been devastated mainly in Italy, Spain, France and Greece with initial estimates suggesting that the insurance bill may already run into hundreds of millions of euros (dollars).

New fires were sparked Sunday in some of the worst hit areas, but also in Croatia, with the latest again blamed on arson following recriminations over criminal fire-starting elsewhere.

On the scorched Italian island of Sardinia, as many as 25,000 hectares (60,000 acres) have been razed by a flaming inferno fanned by high temperatures and an extra-strong Mistral, a fast and dry northerly wind.

Luciano Massetti of Italy’s civil protection corps said that since 6:00 a.m. local time on Sunday, his teams had been called out on eight occasions to fight wildfires — a marked decrease from some 40 call-outs just on Saturday.

Four were on Sardinia, with the others on the neighbouring Mediterranean island of Sicily, in Calabria and the southern Basilicata region. The damage in Sardinia alone is estimated at 80 million euros (115 million dollars).

Ten specialist water-dropping planes, including two Canadairs sent in by the European Union, were trying to douse the flames with volunteers helping to rake through the embers of destroyed local livelihoods.

Amid the devastation, there have also been recriminations with mourners in Sardinia, where a shepherd and a farmer were killed trying to protect their animals, blaming some of the blazes there on criminals and vandals.

"Anger over such a catastrophe… is even greater when you find out there was a human hand behind the fires. It is unacceptable that in our region there are still criminal minds capable of such acts," said the head of the Sardinian region, Ugo Cappellacci, at the funeral of one of the victims on Saturday.

In Spain, dozens of firefighters backed by two water-dropping aircraft were battling a blaze that broke out Sunday on farmland near the airport at Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, local officials said.

The wildfire was threatening several homes but did not disrupt air travel at the airport, Spain’s third-busiest in terms of passenger traffic, they said.

Six firefighters have already died in Spain tackling infernos that changed course with sudden ferocity. The interior ministry said earlier that officials remained on maximum alert with about 20,000 hectares reduced to smouldering earth this past week.

In Croatia, the island of Ciovo, off the coastal town of Split, was the latest to be hit, national radio reported. Firefighters said some 200 hectares of woodland had already gone up in flames.

Some 250 firefighters and volunteers, backed by four water-dropping planes and two helicopters, were battling to extinguish the blaze amid strong winds. The firefighters said they suspected arson.

In France, where a French Foreign Legion officer was charged on Saturday with "involuntary fire-starting" over a blaze that reached the gates of Marseille, firefighters said the strong Mistral wind was easing.

The 43-year-old soldier — just back from Afghanistan and responsible for the release of tracer rounds in training that sparked the blaze — was released on bail, but left contemplating potential ignominy after 23 years in the world-famous regiment.

On the French island of Corsica two suspected arsonists, who have been remanded in custody and charged, were to be questioned by a magistrate on Monday, prosecutor general Paul Michel told AFP.

"The two farmers, aged 24 and 21, admitted to setting five blazes in three villages in the Rapale area," he said after police arrested the pair on Friday and Saturday after a tip-off.

A third suspect, who was arrested earlier, is still in custody.

Meanwhile in Greece, rising temperatures — heading towards 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) — coupled with anticipated strong winds mean several regions were moved to the fourth of five alert levels.