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Algeria wildfires: 28 soldiers among 65 killed as nation observes three-day mourning

ALGIERS, Algeria: At least 65 people, including 28 soldiers deployed as relief firefighters, have been killed as dozens of wildfires raged for a second day in Algeria. The country has declared a three-day of national mourning.

“The death toll from the forest fires has climbed to 65 dead – 28 soldiers and 37 civilians – most of them in Tizi Ouzou district” east of the capital, state television reported.

Another 12 soldiers were “in hospital in a critical condition”, the television added, following the latest wildfires to hit the Mediterranean this summer.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Tuesday night tweeted that the soldiers who died saving 100 people from the fires in two areas of the Kabyle region are “martyrs”.

Kabyle is home to the North African nation’s Berber population.

At least 11 other soldiers were burned fighting the fires, four of them seriously, the defence ministry said.

Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane said on state TV that 17 civilians had died, raising the count from seven previously. He provided no details.

The mountainous Kabyle region, 100 kilometres east of the capital Algiers, is dotted with difficult-to-access villages and, with temperatures rising, has had limited water.

Some villagers were fleeing, while others tried to hold back the flames themselves, using buckets, branches and rudimentary tools. The region has no water-dumping planes.

The deaths and injuries on Tuesday occurred mainly around Kabyle’s capital of Tizi Ouzou, which is flanked by mountains, and also in Bejaia, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, the president said.

The prime minister told state television that initial reports from security services showed the fires in Kabyle were “highly synchronised,” adding that that “leads one to believe these were criminal acts”.

Earlier, interior minister Kamel Beldjoud travelled to Kabyle to assess the situation and also blamed the fires there on arson.

“Thirty fires at the same time in the same region can’t be by chance,” Beldjoud said on national television, although no arrests were announced.

There were no immediate details to explain the high death toll among the military.

A photo taken on the site of the Liberte daily showed a soldier with a shovel dousing sputtering flames with dirt, his automatic weapon slung over his shoulder.

As blazes sprang up on Monday in Kabyle and elsewhere, Algerian authorities sent in the army to help battle blazes and evacuate people.

Multiple fires were burning through forests and devouring olive trees and livestock that provide the livelihoods of families in the Kabyle region.

The Civil Protection authority counted 41 blazes in 18 wilayas (regions) as of Monday night, 21 of them burning around Tizi Ouzou.

A 92-year-old woman living in the Kabyle mountain village of Ait Saada said the scene Monday night looked like “the end of the world”.

“We were afraid,” Fatima Aoudia told The Associated Press. “The entire hill was transformed into a giant blaze.”

Aoudia compared the scene to bombings by French troops during Algeria’s brutal independence war, which ended in 1962.

“These burned-down forests. It’s a part of me that is gone,” Aoudia said. “It’s a drama for humanity, for nature. It’s a disaster.”

An opposition party with roots in the Kabyle region, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), denounced authorities’ slow response to the fires as citizens organised drives to collect bottled water and other supplies.

Calls for help, including from Algerians living abroad, went out on social media, one in English trending on Twitter with the hashtag #PrayforAlgeria.

Photos and videos posted showed plumes of dark smoke and orange skies rising above hillside villages or soldiers in army fatigues without protective clothing.

Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.

A worsening drought and heat – both linked to climate change – are driving wildfires in the western United States and Russia’s northern region of Siberia. Extreme heat is also fuelling massive fires in Greece and Turkey.