Wildfires kill 39 in Portugal and Spain

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Firefighters try to extinguish a fire in Cabanoes near Louzan as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. (AFP / Francisco Leong)
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Firefighters and civilians attempt to subdue wildfire flames in Vigo, northwestern Spain, on October 15, 2017. (File photo by AFP)
Updated 17 October 2017
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Wildfires kill 39 in Portugal and Spain

VOUZELA, Portugal: At least 36 people have died in fires ravaging forests in northern and central Portugal over the past 24 hours, rescuers said Monday, after three people were killed in Spain in blazes sparked by arsonists and fanned by Hurricane Ophelia.
The 36 deaths, which were confirmed by Portugal’s national civil protection agency and included a one-month-old baby, come four months after 64 people were killed in the deadliest fire in the country’s history in June.
“There are still places where security services have not yet managed to reach,” civil protection agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said, adding that the toll remained preliminary for that reason.
She said seven people were still missing due to the fires, which have also injured at least 63 people, including 16 critically.
The 524 registered outbreaks of fire in Portugal, by far the most since 2006, were caused by “higher than average temperatures for the season and the cumulative effect of drought,” Gaspar said.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa reafirmed his pledges to prevent new tragedies by carrying out “fundamental reforms” in forest management and firefighting.
“After this year, nothing should remain as it was before,” he said.
In Portugal, as in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, temperatures were cooler on Monday and weather services forecast rain for Tuesday, but about 3,600 firefighters were still battling some 30 major fires in Portugal by evening.
In Spain, Galician authorities, who have declared three days of regional mourning, said there were still 15 active fires representing a risk to the population and homes.
One of the worst hit areas in Portugal is near the city of Lousa in the Coimbra region, where 650 firefighters were battling blazes.
“We went through absolute hell, it was horrible. There was fire everywhere,” a resident of the town of Penacova, near Lousa. told RTP television.
Two brothers in their 40s who were trying to put out the blaze there were among the fatalities.
In a village in the commune of Vouzela, in the northern district of Viseu, residents used water hoses to try to fight the flames as several homes were consumed.
“Everything happened in 45 minutes, the fire came at the foot of the village and spread at an incredible rate,” resident Jose Morais told AFP. “I had never seen anything like that before. It felt like the end of the world. Everyone fled.”
Fallen electricity pylons and abandoned cars were left lying in roads, the area surrounded by burnt pine and eucalyptus trees, as thick smoke clogged the sky.
“Most of the victims were killed in their cars, but we also found them inside their houses,” said the mayor of the town of Oliveira do Hospital, Jose Carlos Alexandrino, on public television RTP.
“The whole city looked like a ball of fire, surrounded by flames on all sides,” he said.
The Portuguese government said it had called on EU members and Morocco to help in the firefighting efforts, but so far only Italy had agreed to send two water bombers due to arrive in the evening.
Even before the latest blazes, nearly 216,000 hectares (530,000 acres) had been consumed by wildfires across the country between January and September, according to estimates from the country’s forest service.
In Galicia, on Spain’s border with Portugal, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy blamed arsonists for most of the deadly wildfires, which have caused three deaths in the country.
“What we are experiencing here does not happen by chance, this was provoked,” he said after observing a minute’s silence for the victims in the town of Pazos de Borben.
Hundreds of firefighters backed by water-dropping helicopters and planes were battling 19 large wildfires in Galicia on Monday, the regional government said in a statement.
“Galicia is not burning by itself. Galicia is being burned,” said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the regional government, blaming “terrorist arsonists.”
Five wildfires near Vigo, Galicia’s biggest city, forced the evacuation of a shopping mall and a Peugeot Citroen car factory on the outskirts of the city, though workers were able to return to the factory on Monday.
The city of around 300,000 residents has opened up two sports centers and booked rooms in three hotels for people who had to evacuate their homes.
Two women died on Sunday after being engulfed in flames trapped in their van near Nigran, outside Vigo, and an elderly man died in an animal shed near his house in Carballeda de Avia.
Hurricane Ophelia swept past Spain before being downgraded to a violent storm on Monday as it battered Ireland.
Meteorologists said Ophelia was the most powerful hurricane recorded so far east in the Atlantic and the first since 1939 to travel so far north.


EU looks to Egypt, Africa for help with migrant challenge

Updated 59 sec ago
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EU looks to Egypt, Africa for help with migrant challenge

SALZBURG: Austria urged its European Union partners Thursday to enter talks with Egypt to help stem the flow of migrants entering Europe from Africa, amid deep divisions over how to manage the challenge.
Kurz, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and EU Council President Donald Tusk visited Cairo over the weekend for talks with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, a top army general who took office in 2014. Both men have praised him for stopping people from leaving its coast bound for Europe.
“Egypt has proven that it can be efficient,” Kurz told reporters at an EU summit in Salzburg, Austria. “Since 2016, it has prevented ships sailing from Egypt to Europe or, when they have sailed, it has taken them back.”
Kurz said Egypt is “now prepared possibly to deepen cooperation with us in talks. We should use that.” He also said EU leaders support the idea of entering into talks with other North African countries as well.
In dealing with the migrants crisis of the past few years, the EU has been creative, willing to part with billions to secure deals around the Mediterranean with leaders with autocratic leanings.
The bloc lauds the deal it struck with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for slowing migrant arrivals to a trickle over the last two years, in exchange for up to 6 billion euros ($7 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees there and other incentives.
Italy alone paid billions to former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to stop African people from leaving his country’s shores. Thousands were transported from Libya’s coast to its southern border.
Beyond keeping tight control over Egypt’s coastline, El-Sisi could have important influence with the military and militias in lawless, neighboring Libya; a main departure point for migrants trying to enter Europe through Italy. Already, Tusk is lobbying to hold an EU-Arab League summit in Cairo in February.
The call comes after a summer in which Italy’s anti-migrant government closed its ports to NGO ships, and even its own coast guard, carrying people rescued at sea. Hundreds of migrants spent unnecessary days at sea or aboard boats while EU countries bickered over who should take them.
Looking for help from El-Sisi is a new sign of the EU’s determination to outsource the migrant challenge, even though arrival numbers are barely a trickle compared to 2015, when well over a million people entered Europe, mostly fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.
EU countries are studying plans to create “disembarkation platforms” in northern African countries, where people rescued at sea could be dropped off for screening. No African country has expressed interest in hosting one so far.
The EU’s inability to balance responsibility for the migrants and share the burden of hosting them has been a vote-winner for far-right parties across the 28-nation bloc.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Africa is not keen at the moment.
“If we take the approach of: ‘we don’t take them, you take them,’ that doesn’t fly,” she said. “But this doesn’t mean that North African countries would not be ready to cooperate with us, and with the UN, to have a reasonable, sustainable solution.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports talks with North Africa, believes countries like Italy, Greece and Spain must take responsibility for migrant arrivals, but he also underlines the importance of European solidarity.
“There are rules and they have to be respected. We have to protect our citizens but we must do it while respecting our values. Also, responsibilities cannot be upheld if there is no solidarity,” he said.
Macron and the leaders of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands repeated a similar joint line on the balance between responsibilities and solidarity after talks earlier this month. However, they appeared to suggest that solidarity is best expressed by giving European money to partners who need help. No leader offered to share the refugee burden.
One idea raised in Salzburg has been for countries to pay money to Italy or Greece to take care of migrants themselves.
Asked how much a migrant was worth, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said, in an indignant tone: “We are not at the market. We are speaking about humans. We are not speaking about carpets or goods.”
He said that if Europe starts “to ask: ‘how much is the price of an immigrant?’ it’s a shame for all of us.”