At least 74 people have died in wildfires in the Attica region around Athens, in Greece’s worst fire disaster in more than a decade.

Flames fanned by strong winds devastated the seaside village of Mati, devouring homes and cars.

There rescuers found the bodies of 26 adults and children, who had apparently hugged each other as they died, trapped just metres from the sea.

Many calls have been made to the rescue services looking for missing persons.

Mati is located in the Rafina region which is popular with local tourists, especially pensioners and children attending holiday camps.

Hundreds of firefighters have been battling the blazes and the authorities are seeking international assistance.

A fire brigade official confirmed the latest death toll.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has declared three days of national mourning.

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Smoke rise over an avenue during a forest fire in Neo Voutsa, a north-eastern suburb of Athens, Greece, 23 July 2018.Image copyrightEPA
Image captionSmoke over a suburb of Athens

Most shocking scene I have ever witnessed

By Kostas Koukoumakas, Mati

What is happening here in eastern Attica is a black hell. After I passed by hundreds of burning cars and houses earlier today, I reached the yard where police said so many people had been found dead.

I could see some of them lying on the ground as fog covered the place and a toxic smell spread through the atmosphere.

Most of them were tourists who had tried to find refuge but did not make it.

“I am calling my cousin but he does not respond,” said Spiros Hatziandreou, who visited the spot.

I could see flames in the trees and on the electricity poles all around. After that, police blocked access to everyone except rescuers.

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What happened in Mati?

Fire swept through the village 40km (25 miles) north-east of Athens on Monday and was still burning in some areas on Tuesday morning.

Desperate families trying to reach the safety of the sea were trapped by walls of smoke and flame. Others died in buildings or cars.

After the 26 bodies were found in an open space, Nikos Economopoulos, head of Greece’s Red Cross, said: “They had tried to find an escape route but unfortunately these people and their kids didn’t make it in time. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced.”

Dimitri Piros, director of medical services for Ekav, Greece’s nationwide ambulance service, told the BBC people had suffered horrific injuries because of the speed of the fire.

Greece map

The blaze struck like a flamethrower, he said, causing both smoke inhalation and skin burns.

Coastal patrol boats and private vessels picked up hundreds of those who did manage to reach harbours or beaches.

“Thankfully the sea was there and we went into the sea, because the flames were chasing us all the way to the water,” said one survivor, Kostas Laganos.

“It burned our backs and we dived into the water… I said: ‘My God, we must run to save ourselves.'”

George Vokas, whose family escaped by sea but whose house and cars were burnt, told BBC News that two women he had tried to help had died.

“We’re talking about a biblical catastrophe in this wonderful area of Mati,” he said.

A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog, following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece July 24, 2018Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThis woman in Mati was trying to find her dog on Tuesday

Charred bodies lay just 15m (50ft) from the sea, photographer Pantelis Saitas told the Athens-Macedonian News Agency.

At least 150 people were injured in the area.

How are the authorities responding?

Prime Minister Tsipras declared a state of emergency in Attica, saying all emergency services had been mobilised.

A spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Georgia Trismpioti, told the BBC some people had lost everything.

“The death toll rises every hour, many people lost their loved ones, many people lost their houses, lost everything, and they will need long-term support in order to recover,” she said.

Greece has asked other European countries for helicopters and additional firefighters to help tackle the fires.

Italy, Germany, Poland,Portugal and France have all sent help in the form of planes, vehicles and firefighters, and Spain and Cyprus have offered Greece assistance, but with temperatures set to soar again, they are in a race against time to get the fires under control.

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