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Official: Greek fires inch closer to Olympic cradle

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Flames nearing museum, archaeological center in ancient city, official says
  • Two individuals arrested: a 65-year-old man and a 77-year-old woman
  • Officials investigate a gas canister explosive device near Athens
  • The Greek prime minister has declared a nationwide state of emergency
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ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- The wildfires that have scorched southern Greece, killing dozens of people, reached the ancient city of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games, an official said Sunday.

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Smoke rises Sunday in ancient Olympia, close to the archaeological site in western Peloponnese, Greece.

The city is "in danger," said fire department spokeswoman Janis Stamoulis, explaining that the flames are encroaching on an old museum and archaeological center.

None of the city's historical sites has been destroyed, she said.

Officials said Sunday they have arrested and charged two individuals in connection with the fires that have razed dozens of villages and killed at least 51 people, Fire Brigade Officer Nikos Tsogas said Sunday. Video Watch how the death toll continues to rise »

One of the individuals is a 65-year-old man, who witnesses said they saw torching areas in the southern Peloponnese region near the town of Areopolis, located 190 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Athens. Map »

The second person was a 77-year-old woman who reportedly started a fire while cooking in her garden in Zaharo, one of the hardest hit areas in the south.

Tsogas said authorities are deeming her behavior criminal neglect.

Meanwhile, officials are also investigating a gas canister explosive device found attached to a cell phone on the outskirts of Athens.

About 30 meters away rags drenched in petrol were found underneath parched brush and twigs, Tsogas said. Witness reports indicate two "suspicious" individuals were seen near the site. Tsogas said authorities were treating the case seriously.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared a nationwide state of emergency Saturday night, mobilizing all resources. Photo View photos from the blaze and aftermath »

In a nationally televised address, Karamanlis suggested the blazes might have been deliberately set by political extremists ahead of next month's national elections. The fires have placed a damper on campaigning.

"So many fires sparked simultaneously in so many places is no coincidence," Karamanlis said, vowing to punish those responsible. No one has the right to take human lives and destroy the environment, he added.

I-Report: Greek fires
Do you have photos or video footage of the forest fires sweeping Greece? Are you a holidaymaker affected by the blazes? Please get in touch.

He described the situation as a "battle that has to be won" and ordered all resources mobilized to fight the fire.

Many firefighters said they are suspicious of the fire's source, given several witness reports that the blazes cropped up simultaneously along a 20-kilometer (12-mile) front of lush greenery in southern Greece.

Scores of people have been hospitalized with severe burns and respiratory problems, state-run television reported. As of Sunday a total of 45 villages have been evacuated in the parched southern region and at least three villages north of Athens.

Efforts to temper the flames have been stymied due to the sweltering heat wave gripping the area, which has left forests and scrubland parched. That, coupled with strong winds fanning the flames, have led authorities to call this the country's worst fire season on record.

Since June more than 3,000 fires have razed thousands of hectares of forests and scrubland across the country -- nearly triple last year's total -- according to officials.

Heavy smoke billowing Saturday afternoon above Mount Hymettus southeast of Athens signaled that a new fire had broken out.

The worst-hit area stretched for 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the western towns of the Zaharo, within the highlands of the western Peloponnese, to the southern tip of the peninsula, Mani.

A mother, her child and at least seven other people died while trying to flee a burning, wooded area in the mountainous villages in the western Peloponnese, near the town of Zaharo, according to a fire brigade official.

Farther south, six people -- including two French tourists found by rescue crews in an embrace -- were killed in a forest fire that swept near their hotel in the town of Areopolis, located 190 km (120 miles) southwest of Athens.

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Greece's elections are set for September 16. The ruling party has called for a temporary suspension of political campaigning as a sign of respect to those who died in the flames, and flags on government buildings were flying at half staff Saturday.

The modern Olympics began in 1896, but the ancient games can be traced to 776 B.C. The games were staged on the plains of Olympia for 12 centuries until 393 A.D. when Emperor Theodosius issued a ban on "pagan cults," according to the International Olympic Committee. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Journalist Anthee Carassava contributed to this report

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