Wildfire burns at the village of Mati near Athens
By Vassilis Triandafyllou and Alkis Konstantinidis
MATI, Greece (Reuters) - The worst Greek forest fires in a decade burned at least seven people to death near Athens on Monday as they attempted to flee in their cars or on foot.
A Reuters witness saw at least four dead on a road in the community of Mati about 29 km (18 miles) east of Athens. The popular tourist destination was devastated by the fast-moving blaze that started at about 5 p.m. (1400 GMT).
One victim was in a car, another beneath a vehicle. Two people died on a motor bike in what appeared to be a traffic queue heading to the safe haven of a nearby beach.
The health ministry confirmed three more deaths, while government officials expected the toll to rise significantly.
There were several reports of missing persons, including four tourists from Denmark. At least 56 people were injured, health officials said.
Other journalists said they counted at least seven dead on a road in Mati. One TV channel said eight bodies were being transferred by boat to the port of Rafina, near Mati.
As the fire still raged and darkness fell, the extent of the disaster was impossible to gauge.
"We are dealing with something completely asymmetric," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, looking pale, said after cutting short a visit to Bosnia.
Greece issued an urgent appeal for help to tackle fires which raged uncontrolled in several places across the country, destroying homes, disrupting major transport links and sending people fleeing for their lives.
Greece said it needed air and land assets from its European Union partners. Cyprus offered to send fire engines and personnel.
Reuters witnesses reported seeing a hillside of homes gutted by flames east of Athens. A mayor said he saw at least 100 homes and 200 vehicles burning.
Greek authorities urged residents of a coastal region west of Athens to abandon their homes as a wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greece's busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.
Wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, but a relatively dry winter created tinder box conditions. It was not clear what ignited the fires.
The army was drafted in on Monday afternoon to help fight the blazes. A senior fire chief went on state TV to appeal to people to leave the area of Kineta west of Athens after some tried to stay on their properties.
"People should leave, close up their homes and just leave. People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours," Achilleas Tzouvaras said. "This is an extreme situation."
The main Athens-Corinth motorway, one of two road routes to the Peloponese peninsula, was shut and train services were canceled.
Fire raged around the Saronicos Gulf, ravaging tracts of pine forest, and was visible for miles. An ominous cloud of black-orange smoke hung over the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon temple in Athens on Monday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou, writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Cynthia Osterman)