NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus search crews discovered the bodies of four people outside a fire-swept mountain village on Sunday in what the a government minister called the “most destructive” blaze in the east Mediterranean island nation’s history.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said that Civil Defense volunteers discovered the remains just outside the village of Odou on the southern edge of the Troodos mountain range.
“We are experiencing the most destructive fire since the founding of the Cyprus republic in both material damage, but also unfortunately in terms of human lives,” Nouris said.
Authorities believe the bodies belong to four Egyptian laborers who had gone missing Saturday evening. Nouris said he has informed the Egyptian ambassador to Cyprus and that arrangements will be made to repatriate the remains.
President Nicos Anastasiades called the fire “an unprecedented tragedy” except for the destruction wreaked by a 1974 war that split the island along ethnic lines after Turkey invaded in response to a coup aimed at union with Greece.
Nouris said Greek and Israeli aircraft will join 11 other planes and helicopters in firefighting efforts later Sunday.
The blaze, which began on Saturday afternoon outside the village of Arakapas, forced the evacuation of at least eight mountain villages, destroyed several homes, and has so far scorched 55 square kilometers (21 square miles) of pine forest and orchards.
Despondent area residents who saw their homes go up in flames vented their anger at what they called authorities’ slow response to battling the fire.
Anastasiades, who toured the fire-hit villages, pledged immediate government help to farmers and home owners who lost crops and property. Arakapa village residents where Anastasiades was speaking told the president that they would hold him to account on his pledges.
Nouris said firefighting aircraft and ground crews are focusing their efforts on two massive fire fronts between the villages of Odou and Vavatsinia. He said authorities are “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll make progress in beating back the flames.
Anastasiades said the blaze is “partially contained,” but the fear is that the flames could intensify again if strong winds reappear later in the day.
Nouris said 36 people who had been evacuated from their homes have been taken to hotels in the capital, Nicosia, while food and water is being supplied to Melini village residents.
The blaze forced the Cypriot government to request firefighting aircraft from fellow European Union member countries and neighboring Israel. Fire department officials said the entire department has been mobilized to fight the fire with off-duty staff being called back into service.
Around 70 fire engines, seven bulldozers and 10 water tankers have been mobilized. Many volunteers also rushed to help fire crews.
Two Greek Canadair CL-415 aircraft arrived in Cyprus to help. One Canadair had to turn back because of a technical fault, but was replaced by another. Two Israeli planes have also been dispatched, while authorities are awaiting confirmation about the arrival of two Italian aircraft.
Police said a 67-year-old man faces arson charges. A court ordered that he remains in custody for eight days to assist in the investigation into the cause of the fire.
Anastasiades urged citizens to be on the lookout for “those who cause such destruction either carelessly or deliberately.”