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25 soldiers die fighting wildfires in northern Algeria

Burned trees are pictured near Tizi Ouzou some 100 km (62 miles) east of Algiers following wildfires in this mountainous region, Tuesday, Aug.10, 2021. Firefighters were battling a rash of fires in northern Algeria that have killed at least six people in the mountainous Kabyle region, the interior minister said Tuesday, accusing "criminal hands" for some of the blazes. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria’s president announced Tuesday night that 25 soldiers have been killed saving residents from the wildfires ravaging forests and villages east of the capital, adding to the fire death toll this week in the North African nation.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeted that the soldiers saved 100 citizens from the blazes in two areas in the mountainous Kabyle region, home of the Berbers. Four other soldiers were seriously burned fighting the fires and seven others also had burns, the Defense Ministry said.

At least seven local people were reported dead in the fires on Tuesday.

Dozens of blazes sprang up Monday in the mountainous Kabyle region and elsewhere, and Algerian authorities sent in the army to help citizens battle blazes and evacuate. Multiple fires were burning through forests and devouring the olive trees, cattle and chickens that provide the livelihoods of families in the Kabyle region.

The Kabyle region, 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Algeria’s capital of Algiers, is dotted with difficult-to-access villages and has 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.

Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud traveled to Kabyle to assess the situation Tuesday and appeared to blame some of the wildfires on arson. He said six residents of Kabyle had died in the fires, but other media cited a higher death toll.

“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.

Other northern areas of Algeria also had active wildfires. The Civil Protection authority said on Algerian radio that seven people had died, six in Kabyle and a man in his 80s trying to save his animals in the Setif region to the east. It counted 41 blazes in 18 wilayas, or regions, as of Monday night, with 21 of them burning around the Kabyle capital of Tizi Ouzou.

The online media outlet TSA said up to 11 people had been killed in the blazes, including those in Kabyle. Many started Monday, spurred on by high temperatures and wind.

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.”

Like older adults quoted by Algerian media, 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.”

Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. A worsening drought and heat – both linked to climate change – are driving wildfires in the U.S. West and Siberia. Extreme heat is also fueling the massive fires in Greece and Turkey.

A Civil Protection ambulance driver told the AP that the death toll in Kabyle was higher than the six victims cited by the interior minister. The driver asked not to be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak about the situation.