Flames erupted across northern Algeria on Thursday as the country observed a national day of mourning for dozens of people killed in recent forest fires to cover the Mediterranean.
The North African country has been gripping devastating fires since Monday that have claimed at least 69 lives – 41 civilians and 28 soldiers.
On Thursday night, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced the arrest of 22 suspects in arson and said that “the majority of the fires are of criminal origin”, in a speech on state television.
Algerian authorities say they suspect arson after so many fires broke out in such a short time.
William Lawrence, professor of political science and international affairs, comments on the Algerian government’s handling of forest fires
Soldiers and civilian volunteers have joined firefighters on several fronts in trying to put out the fires, which have been blown away by windy and dry conditions.
In the Tizi Ouzou district, the area with the highest number of injured, an AFP journalist reported that forests went up in smoke.
The villagers forced to evacuate to escape the flames began to seep back to their homes, overwhelmed by the extent of the damage.
“I have nothing left. My workshop, my car, my apartment. The tiles were also destroyed,” one of them told AFP.
But he said he had “managed to save his family”, while adding that “neighbors died or lost their relatives”.
Flags waved at half-staff after Tebboune declared three days of national mourning, starting on Thursday.
The country’s prosecutors on Thursday ordered an investigation after a mob allegedly lynched a man they accused of causing the forest fires.
Videos released on Wednesday showed a mob killing 38-year-old Jamal Ben Ismail and setting him on fire in the Tizi Ouzou district.
On the fourth day of the forest fires, efforts continue to overcome the fires in many regions, where civilians and soldiers – often with limited means – joined the fight.
Pictures of trapped villagers, terrified cattle and wooded slopes reduced to black stumps have been shared on social media.
France also announced the arrival in Algeria of two Canadair firefighting planes it has sent.
“They will help the rescue services to deal with the terrible fires,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron.
Two more come from Spain and one from Switzerland.
Neighboring Morocco, to which Algeria has long had strained ties across Western Sahara, also offered to help by providing two planes.
In view of the scale of the disaster, there is a growing demand for assistance in Algeria and beyond.
“Individuals and associations are mobilizing … by organizing collections of clothing, food, medicine and hygiene products,” Algeria’s TSA news website said, calling it an “increase in solidarity.”
Djaffar, a resident of the village of Agoulmim in Kabylie, expressed his gratitude on Berber TV.
“God bless them … We had no electricity and people brought in generators from all over,” said the exhausted villager after his trial.
“The flames were so high that they destroyed everything. Suddenly it was like a volcano,” he said.
High winds drove the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heat wave over North Africa and the wider Mediterranean.
The head of the Armed Forces, Said Chengriha, visited soldiers in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, another hard-hit area. Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane also visited Tizi Ouzou.
Every summer, Algeria undergoes seasonal forest fires, but rarely does anything approach this year’s disaster.
Meteorologists estimate that the regional heat wave will continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Across the border in Tunisia, where almost 30 fires have been recorded since Monday, mercury broke a record 50.3 degrees Celsius through the ages in Cairo’s central region (center).
Dozens of fires have been registered in Tunisia since Monday.
On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, deadly forest fires have ravaged Turkey and Greece for the past two weeks.
In Italy, where firefighters battled more than 500 fires overnight, Sicily recorded a temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which is believed to be a new European record.