NICOSIA (Reuters) - Two firefighters were killed tackling one of the largest forest fires to hit Cyprus in years and several countries mobilised aid to contain the blaze, which raged for a third day on Tuesday (June 21).
The fire, possibly started by an attempt to burn dry stubble, broke out on Sunday in the foothills of the Troodos mountain region of the eastern Mediterranean island.
It has been fanned by high winds and scorching temperatures, hampering efforts by firefighters backed by water bomber aircraft from Greece and Israel and helicopters from the British military bases in Cyprus. French and Italian air support was expected on the island later on Tuesday.
The two firefighters were killed when a water tanker overturned. A third was in a critical condition after a fire truck plunged down a ravine.
They were the first fatalities among firefighters reported in at least a decade in Cyprus, which has frequent brush fires during hot summer months but usually on a much smaller scale.
Turkey, which Cyprus has been at loggerheads with for decades, also offered aid, the state-run Cyprus News Agency said. There was no immediate response from Cypriot authorities.
A Reuters witness said lush pine forest was reduced to blackened stumps as aircraft dumped red dry fire extinguisher over flames, followed by helicopters equipped with 'rainmaker'buckets.
The Soleas area hardest hit by the blaze is covered by pine forest and fruit orchards. The blaze coincided with a heatwave which pushed temperatures up to 42 degrees centigrade (108 Fahrenheit), creating tinderbox conditions.
The broader area contains 10 well-conserved painted churches dating from the Byzantine era which are on the Unesco World Heritage list.
"They are not in danger, we are protecting them,"fire brigade spokesman Leonidas Leonidou told Reuters.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades asked for a postponement of a meeting scheduled with Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, part of a series of talks focused on reunification of the war-divided island.
Akinci, head of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus, also offered assistance, but Anastasiades declined, saying there were enough assets available.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines following a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek inspired coup.