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Thousands flee as fire rips through overcrowded Greek refugee camp

Moria camp, located on the island of Lesbos just off the Turkish coast, was under coronavirus lockdown
At least 25 firemen with 10 engines, aided by police, battled the flames both inside and outside the facility (AFP)

Thousands of refugees fled fires on Wednesday that tore through a camp under coronavirus lockdown on Greece's island of Lesbos, as the prime minister called an emergency meeting with ministers.

The fire broke out at the overcrowded camp of Moria just after midnight Tuesday, fire brigade officials said.

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By early morning, most of Moria was reduced to a smouldering mangled mass of burnt containers and tents, with a few people picking over the debris for their personal possessions, TV images showed.

There were no reports of injuries or fatalities, while the cause of the blaze which burned tents and containers was not immediately clear, Reuters reported.

Moria was "probably totally destroyed", Migration Ministry official Manos Logothetis told the state-run Athens News Agency.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called a crisis meeting for early on Wednesday.

'Out of control'

Initial reports suggested fires broke out at different locations in the sprawling camp after authorities tried to isolate a number of individuals who tested positive for Covid-19.

"The fire is still raging, the camp has been evacuated. All these people are on the national road towards Mytilini," said Panagiotis Deligiannis, a witness from Moria.

"There are police out who are not letting them through. These people are sleeping left and right in the fields." 

At least 25 firemen with 10 engines, aided by police, battled the flames both inside and outside the facility, the fire brigade said, adding that firemen were pushed back by refugees during their efforts.

People were seen leaving the camp, carrying their luggage, Reuters witnesses said.

"The situation was out of control," policeman Argyris Syvris told Open TV, adding that police were forced to release about 200 persons detained in a separate quarter of the camp who were to be repatriated to their countries.

Frequent criticism

The Moria facility, which hosts more than 12,000 people - more than four times its stated capacity - has been frequently criticised by aid groups for poor living conditions.

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The facility was placed under quarantine last week after authorities confirmed that an asylum-seeker had tested positive for the coronavirus. Confirmed infections have risen to 35 since then.

Lesbos, which lies just off the Turkish coast, was on the front line of a massive movement of refugees to Europe in 2015-2016. 

Due to the pandemic, since 1 March, all refugees reaching the island have been quarantined away from the camps.

In the Moria camp, aid groups have warned that social distancing and basic hygiene measures are impossible to implement due to the living conditions.