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12.08.2021 Algeria

Algeria combats wildfires, observes day of mourning

By Yacine Benrabia with Abdelhafid Daamache in Algiers
Heavy smoke rises during a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital Algiers.  By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)
LISTEN AUG 12, 2021
Heavy smoke rises during a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital Algiers. By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)

Blazes raged across northern Algeria on Thursday as the country observed a national day of mourning for dozens of people killed in the latest wildfires to sweep the Mediterranean.

The North African country has been in the grip of devastating fires since Monday that have claimed at least 69 lives -- 41 civilians and 28 soldiers.

Soldiers and civilian volunteers have joined firefighters on multiple fronts in the effort to extinguish the blazes that have been fanned by windy and tinder-dry conditions.

In Tizi Ouzou district, the area with the highest casualty toll, an AFP journalist reported entire sectors of forest going up in smoke.

Map of northern Algeria locating major fires in the last 24 hours.  By Cléa PÉCULIER (AFP) Map of northern Algeria locating major fires in the last 24 hours. By Cléa PÉCULIER (AFP)

Villagers forced to evacuate in order to escape the flames began trickling back to their homes, overwhelmed by the scale of the damage.

"I have nothing left. My workshop, my car, my flat. Even the tiles were destroyed," one of them told AFP.

But he said he had "managed to save his family", while adding that "neighbours died or lost their relatives".

'Surge of solidarity'

Flags were flying at half-mast after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning starting from Thursday.

The Algerian authorities say they suspect widespread arson after so many fires erupted in such a short space of time.

Flags of Algeria fly at half-mast in mourning for the victims of the Kabylie region forest fires in Algeria's capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021.  By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP) Flags of Algeria fly at half-mast in mourning for the victims of the Kabylie region forest fires in Algeria's capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021. By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)

On the fourth day of the wildfires, efforts to overcome the blazes are continuing in many regions where civilians and soldiers often with limited means joined the fight.

Images of trapped villagers, terrified livestock and forested hillsides reduced to blackened stumps have been shared on social media.

Algeria is also chartering two firefighting planes from the European Union, aircraft recently used to combat fires in Greece.

France also announced the arrival in Algeria of two Canadair firefighting planes it has sent.

"They will help the rescue efforts to deal with the terrible fires that Algeria has been facing for several days," French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Thursday.

Burned houses stand amid charred trees, following a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital.  By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP) Burned houses stand amid charred trees, following a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the Algerian capital. By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)

Neighbouring Morocco, with whom Algeria has long had strained ties over the Western Sahara, also offered to help by providing two planes.

Faced with the scale of the disaster, pleas for help are multiplying in Algeria and beyond.

"Individuals and associations are mobilising... by organising collections of clothes, foodstuffs, medicines and hygiene products," said Algeria's TSA news website, calling it a "surge of solidarity".

Heatwave

High winds fuelled the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heatwave across North Africa and the wider Mediterranean.

Volunteers of the SIDRA Association NGO take part in an initiative with the Algerian Food Bank to send aid packages to victims of the Kabylie region forest fires in Algeria's capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021.  By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP) Volunteers of the SIDRA Association NGO take part in an initiative with the Algerian Food Bank to send aid packages to victims of the Kabylie region forest fires in Algeria's capital Algiers, on August 12, 2021. By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)

The authorities have raised the possibility of criminal behaviour.

Four suspected "arsonists" arrested so far, but their identities or suspected motives have not yet been disclosed.

Armed forces chief Said Chengriha visited soldiers in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, another badly affected area. Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane also visited Tizi Ouzou.

Each summer, Algeria endures seasonal wildfires, but rarely anything approaching this year's disaster.

An injured man looks on during a wildfire in Tizi Ouzou.  By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP) An injured man looks on during a wildfire in Tizi Ouzou. By Ryad KRAMDI (AFP)

Meteorologists expect the Maghreb heatwave to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

Across the border in Tunisia, where almost 30 fires have been recorded since Monday, the mercury hit an all-time record of 50.3 Celsius in the central region of Kairouan (centre).

On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, deadly wildfires have been raging in Turkey and Greece for the past two weeks.

In Italy, where firefighters were battling more than 500 blazes overnight, Sicily recorded a temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday that is believed to be a new European record.

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