Greek Prime Minister pays tribute to 'hero' pilots killed in firefighting plane crash

A water-dropping plane crashed while diving into a wildfire in southern Greece killing both pilots, John Irvine reports

The Greek Prime Minister has paid tribute to two "hero" pilots who died after a firefighting plane crashed in southern Greece.

34-year-old Commander Christos Moulas and his co-pilot, 27-year-old Pericles Stefanidis, from the Greek Hellenic Air Force, were killed on Tuesday when their plane crashed into a hillside in Evia.

In response, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis cancelled a planned visit to Cyprus for Wednesday, while three days of mourning were called for the country's armed forces.

Emergency services continue to battle the blazes ravaging Rhodes, Corfu, and Evia, and thousands of British holidaymakers have been evacuated.

The moment was captured by state television as fires continue to ravage southern Europe (Credit: EPT)

Mr Mitsotakis said of the tragedy on Tuesday: "Today, we Greeks mourn the tragic loss of our pilots Christos Moulas and Pericles Stefanidis in Evia."

"They gave their lives saving lives, proving how risky their daily firefighting missions are.

"The state respectfully stands by the families of the two heroes. They are two children, two brothers of all of us.

"Words are poor to describe the national mourning for their loss... So, we grit our teeth and turn our silence into strength.

"In their memory, we continue the war against the destructive forces of nature."

The crash occurred on the island of Evia and was aired in a state television broadcast, which showed the low-flying aircraft disappearing into a canyon before a fireball was seen moments later.

The plane had no ejection system.

In recent days, wildfires have taken hold in several other European countries, including Italy, Turkey and France as well as Algeria, in northern Africa.

A third successive heatwave in Greece pushed temperatures back above 40C across parts of the country, on Tuesday, following more night time evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days.

Evia has been one of the three worst-hit islands by the recent wave of wildfires to strike Greece.

Despite the blazes, Housing Secretary Michael Gove told Sky News on Tuesday he still planned to visit the island for his summer holiday.

Planes have been deployed to help battle the flames. Credit: AP

The flames continue to wreak havoc for holidaymakers as airlines evacuate more Brits from Greek islands.

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell estimated on Monday morning there had been as many as 10,000 British nationals on Rhodes before evacuations began.

Desperate residents, many with wet towels around their necks to stave off the scorching heat, used shovels to beat back flames approaching their homes, while firefighting planes and helicopters resumed water drops at first light.

The European Union (EU) has sent 500 firefighters, 100 vehicles and seven planes from 10 member states, while Turkey, Israel, Egypt and other countries have also sent help.

"For the 12th day, under extreme conditions of heat and strong winds, we are fighting nonstop on dozens of forest fire fronts... The Greek Fire Service has battled more than 500 fires - more than 50 a day," said Vassilis Kikilias, the minister for climate crisis and civil protection.

Volunteers try to control a fire near Palermo, Sicily. Credit: AP

In Athens, authorities resumed afternoon closing hours at the ancient Acropolis, as part of broader measures to cope with the high heat.

Elsewhere in Europe, on the island of Sicily, two elderly people have been found dead, after their home was burned down by a wildfire.

Officials in the Italian region said 55 fires were active on Sicily, on Tuesday, amid temperatures above 40C.

In southeastern France, fire crews fought scattered wildfires, including one near Arles, in Provence, involving 300 firefighters and a water-dropping helicopter.

And in Turkey, authorities evacuated a dozen homes and a hospital as a precaution after a wildfire raged near the Mediterranean resort of Kemer.

EU officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires across the European continent, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...