Firefighters battle with fires across central Italy

Firefighters were battling Wednesday to contain scattered fires across central and southern Italy, which authorities believe are largely caused by arsonists.

Two Canadair tanker planes were employed to put out a blaze in the Sicilian city of Messina, the ANSA news agency said, while other fires were reported in Sardinia, Abruzzo - the region where the pilot of a firefighting plane died earlier this week - and other regions.

Scattered fires continued to rage in the Gargano peninsula, a spur of land above the heel of the Italian boot where the situation has been more critical.

Two elderly people died there Tuesday, the Civil Protection Department said Wednesday, after early reports had put the number of victims at four. The fires also destroyed hundreds of hectares (acres) of forest and caused hundreds of residents and tourists to flee to the beach, where they were rescued by boats.

About 3,000 people, tourists and residents, had to be evacuated from their hotels or homes, reports said. Many spent the night in schools and hotels in nearby towns.

The Defense Ministry said late Tuesday it had dispatched military helicopters and transport vehicles to help the firefighters in the region.

Italy has been hit by a heat wave with temperatures exceeding 40 C (104 F) in some cities, while many others registered temperatures in the high 30s C (about 100 F). But there is little doubt that arsonists were behind most of the blazes, said Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Department, which has been coordinating efforts to combat the fires.

"The pilots of the Canadair planes with whom I have been in contact told me that each time they extinguish a blaze they see four more suddenly spring up," he said.

Arsonists are acting mainly to clear land for pasture or to build illegally, officials say. A similar scenario is being experienced by Greece, where construction workers have been regarded as likely perpetrators in many of the hundreds of fires that have burned up thousands of hectares (acres) of forest land throughout Greece since June.

"The fires that are plaguing Italy these days are almost always caused by arson," said Cesare Patrone, head of Italy's forest service. "There are criminals who, for direct or indirect economic reasons, create these environmental disasters that not only damage nature but unfortunately also cause human victims."

The ANSA news agency reported that a 28-year-old construction worker was arrested Tuesday in Sardinia as he was setting fire to a pine forest, while another worker was apprehended when he tried to start a blaze near a train station south of Rome. In Greece, a 39-year-old suspect was arrested Tuesday and charged with setting a fire near the Athens-Corinth national road.