A huge forest blaze in Cyprus killed four people, destroyed homes and forced evacuations of villages, police said Sunday, as Greece, Israel and other countries deployed fire-fighting planes to the Mediterranean island.
The Egyptian government said the four dead were agricultural workers from the North African country, while Nicosia vowed in a tweet to "stand by the victims' families in the face of this tragedy, offering every support".
Fanned by strong winds, the fire broke out Saturday afternoon and swept through the southern foothills of the Troodos mountains as the country grapples with a blistering heatwave.
"Everything was a nightmare and pure hell here, the village was surrounded by fire," said Akis Giorgiou, 45, from the hamlet of Arakapas, who had spent a terrifying night there and was relieved on Sunday that his home was spared from the flames.
At least 25 buildings were damaged or destroyed, nine of them in Arakapas, said a local police official.
"It is a tragedy," President Nicos Anastasiades said about the blaze on Twitter, describing it as "the largest fire since 1974", the year when the island was divided after Turkey occupied its northern third.
The blaze had caused loss of life and destroyed property and forest lands, Anastasiades said, adding that "the government will provide immediate assistance" to the victims and their families.
More than 50 square kilometres (20 square miles) of forest and farmland had been destroyed.
Thick gnarled trunks of ancient olive trees, emblematic of the holiday island, were reduced to smouldering stumps.
Firefighters brought the main fire under control on Sunday, authorities said, while warning that strengthening winds could yet propel a resurgence.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said the four Egyptians' charred bodies were found outside the village of Odos in Larnaca district.
Their burnt-out vehicle was found at the bottom of a ravine and the four bodies some 600 metres (yards) away. A policeman at the scene told AFP that they appeared to have fled the vehicle on foot but run in the direction of the wind-fanned flames, in a doomed attempt to escape.
In areas where the fire had been tamed, charred tree trunks were visible on hillsides, while grey ash had replaced yellowed scrub as far as the eye could see in non-forested areas.
A 67-year-old farmer was arrested and remanded in custody on suspicion of starting the blaze. He was seen by an eyewitness leaving the village of Arakapas in his car at the same time the fire started there on Saturday, police said.
He could face charges of recklessly causing the deaths of the four Egyptians, police added.
- Extended heatwave -
Anastasiades visited a crisis management centre in the village of Vavatsinia, located a few kilometres east of the blaze, on Sunday morning, before heading to areas ravaged by the flames, according to the CNA news agency.
He said the blaze appeared largely contained but could resurge.
"The high temperatures and the wind are our biggest dangers," he said.
"The whole situation is under partial control. What worries us is the possible increase of the winds."
Firefighters were seen along the road leading to Vavatsinia and several helicopters hovered above the fire as a thick grey smoke obscured the sky.
An AFP correspondent in the village of Ora reported seeing several burned out homes.
Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, said on Saturday its "aerial firefighting capacity" had been mobilised, with Italy and Greece sending planes to help.
Israel deployed a C-130 Hercules and two "Air Tractor" firefighting aircraft.
Israel's firefighting authority said the planes were due to land in Larnaca, where they would join the Italian and Greek teams and also Spanish and British crews.
Britain, which has military bases on Cyprus, deployed two search and rescue helicopters and was helping refuel Cypriot aircraft.
Cyprus has experienced extended heatwaves and periods of drought in recent years.
In the past few days, the temperature has topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) inland and there has been very little rain since mid-April.