NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus search crews discovered the bodies of four people outside a fire-swept mountain village 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.
He said authorities are trying to confirm whether the bodies belong to four Egyptian men who had gone missing and search crews had been trying to locate.
“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.
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.
The blaze, which began on Saturday afternoon, forced the evacuation of at least eight mountain villages, destroyed several homes, and has so far scorched more than 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) of pine forest and orchards, according to Cyprus’ Environment Ministry.
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.
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, who is touring the fire-hit villages, 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.
Cypriot government spokesman Marios Pelekanos said that one of two Greek Canadair CL-415 aircraft that were dispatched to the island had to turn back because of a technical malfunction.
Another Greek aircraft is being sent to replace the faulty plane and is now being refueled on the Greek island of Rhodes, Anastasiades said.
He said two Israeli planes have been sent, 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.”