Wildfire rages near Athens as hundreds evacuated

ATHENS (Reuters) - Hundreds of firefighters on Wednesday battled a wildfire that raged for a second day in mountains near Athens, burning homes and cars and forcing the evacuation of at least nine settlements and a hospital.

Gale-force winds and thick smoke in the Penteli region hindered fire-fighting efforts from the air and on the ground, authorities said. Strong winds were forecast to persist until Wednesday afternoon.

The wildfire broke out around 1430 GMT on Tuesday, some 27 km (16 miles) north of the capital and was still burning on several fronts. The billowing smoke was visible from the island of Evia some 50 km away.

Penteli had suffered a wildfire in July 2018. Huge wildfires in 1995 and 1998 had burned more than 13,000 of hectares.

Firefighters recovered the body of an 84-year old man who died from shotgun injuries, police said. A fire brigade spokesman said the injuries appeared to be self-inflicted but the incident was under investigation.

Ambulances took other three people to hospital with respiratory problems and slight burns, authorities said.

About 485 firefighters and 120 fire engines were deployed to contain the blaze. Nine aircraft and 10 helicopters were dumping water on the flames on Wednesday.

"There are a number of destroyed homes and businesses. We will have a clearer count tomorrow," Thanasis Zoutsos, the mayor of Pallini, on the outskirts of Athens told state ERT TV.

In a televised statement, Fire Department spokesperson Yiannis Artopios talked of a "difficult night," as wind speeds exceeded 80 kilometres (50 miles) per hour, constantly changing direction, hindering efforts to tame the blaze.

Authorities had ordered the evacuation of nine districts, including Pallini and Gerakas. One hospital and the National Observatory of Athens were also evacuated as police helped at least 600 people flee fire-stricken areas.

Last year, wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heat wave in 30 years.

(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos, Renee Maltezou, Costas Baltas, Angeliki Koutantou, Karolina Tagaris and Vassilis Triandafyllou; Writing by Renee Maltezou and George Georgiopoulos; editing by John Stonestreet)