NICOSIA • Two firefighters were killed and a third was critically injured while tackling one of the largest forest fires in Cyprus in years.
The blaze, 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 was fanned by high winds and scorching temperatures, hampering efforts by firefighters backed by water bomber aircraft from Greece and Israel and helicopters from British military bases in Cyprus.
The two firefighters were killed when a water tanker overturned. A third was in a critical condition after a fire engine 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 its hot summer months but usually on a much smaller scale.
"The situation is difficult. It has not been totally brought under control," said Mr Leonidas Leonidou, a spokesman for Cyprus's fire brigade service.
The Soleas area, hardest hit by the blaze, is covered by pine forest and fruit orchards. The blaze coincided with the first major heatwave of the year, creating tinderbox conditions.
The broader area contains a cluster of 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," Mr Leonidou said.
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.
During a visit to the area on Monday, he described the devastation as "tragic". Yesterday morning, thick plumes of smoke hung over the mountain range normally clearly visible from the capital Nicosia.
Adding to the international relief efforts, France was expected to send three firefighting aircraft to Cyprus, the state-run Cyprus News Agency reported.
Mr Akinci, head of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus, offered assistance, but Mr Anastasiades declined.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines following a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.