MACIEIRA, Portugal, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Jittery Portuguese
villagers, on the lookout for strangers who might have set a
nearby forest fire, surrounded and questioned this Reuters
reporter at knifepoint on Thursday.
The incident outside the village of Macieira, about 180 km
(110 miles) northeast of Lisbon, underscored rising tensions as
the worst fires in 20 years sweep Portugal. With at least 14
people dead in the fires, police are stepping up efforts to
arrest suspected arsonists.
As I sat in my parked car to file an oral report by mobile
phone, a man in his 20s pulled alongside in his car and stopped.
He asked, "Have you got a problem?," made a call on his own
mobile phone and pulled his car ahead to block mine.
The casually dressed man approached my car and said through
the open window, "What do you think you're doing, speaking
foreign languages and talking on the phone?"
Given my journalist's identification card, he said,
"Journalist, ha!
"For all we know, you could be one of the people that
started the fire!" he said as water-bombing aircraft clattered
low overhead to battle the blaze crackling 200 metres (yards)
away.
About five more men in their 20s arrived in cars, blocking
any exit. The first man brandished a hunting knife while another
pulled open the car door to get me out of the car.
A police car turned up and a plainclothes officer emerged to
calm down the villagers.
"You must understand that these people are very nervous.
People have died, and even we get harassed and insulted," said
the officer, who gave his name as Proenca.
The fire that erupted in pine woods outside Macieira swept
from treetop to treetop as more than 200 firefighters, soldiers
and volunteers struggled to contain it.
Fire chief Alvaro Monteiro, his voice hoarse in the heat and
smoke, said the growth of the fire was suspicious.
"There was one big fire. At the same time, three smaller
ones," he said. "That gives very strong signs of arson."
Police arrested at least seven people on Wednesday suspected
of setting fires. The Forestry Commission said about 162,000
hectares (400,000 acres), or roughly five percent, of woodlands
had burned this year, much of it since late July.

Reut14:14 08-07-03