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Algeria mourns 69 dead as regional wildfires spread

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Smoke rises from a wildfire in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the capital Algiers, on Aug 10, 2021. AFP

Algeria mourns 69 dead as regional wildfires spread

The death toll climbed to at least 69 as firefighters, soldiers and civilian volunteers battled blazes in forests across northern Algeria on August 11, in the latest wildfires to sweep the Mediterranean.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning starting from August 12, and authorities say they suspect widespread arson after so many fires erupted in such a short space of time.

In an update, state-run news agency Algerie Presse Service (APS) said the rash of more than 50 fires that broke out on August 10 had claimed four more lives, in addition to state television’s toll of 65 dead, including 28 soldiers deployed to help overstretched emergency services.

Several arrests have been announced, but the identities or suspected motives of those detained have not been disclosed.

Images of trapped villagers, terrified livestock and forested hillsides reduced to blackened stumps were shared on social media, many of them accompanied by pleas for help.

AFP journalists saw villagers desperately trying to put out the spreading fires with makeshift brooms in an effort to save their homes.

High winds fuelled the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heatwave across North Africa and the wider Mediterranean, fire official Youcef Ould Mohamed told APS.

Scores of separate wildfires remained active on August 11, spread across 17 provinces, emergency services spokesman Nassim Barnaoui told reporters.

Most of the fires and 16 of the deaths were recorded in Tizi Ouzou district, in the mainly Berber region of Kabylie, east of the capital Algiers.

There have been mounting calls for aid convoys to be sent to the worst-hit districts with food and medicine from the capital.

On August 11, an AFP correspondent saw several lorries headed to Tizi Ouzou with aid donated by the public.

French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter that France would send two Canadair firefighting planes and a command aircraft to the Kabylie region on August 12 to help.

Neighbouring Morocco, with whom Algeria has long had strained ties over the Western Sahara, also expressed a readiness to help.

Rabat offered two Canadair planes “if the Algerian authorities agree”, a Moroccan foreign ministry statement said.

Algeria is also chartering two firefighting planes from the EU, aircraft recently being used to stop fires in Greece.

Meteorologists expect the heatwave across North Africa to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 46 degrees Celsius.

In Algeria’s neighbour Tunisia, the temperature in the capital Tunis hit an all-time record of 49C on August 10.

The Tunisian emergency services reported 15 fires across the north and northwest, but no casualties.

On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, Turkey reported eight deaths and Greece three from wildfires that have raged for the past two weeks.

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