ATHENS, March 4 (Reuters) - A fire in a 900-year old Serb
monastery in Greece destroyed priceless religious artefacts,
17th century wall paintings and frescoes, Greek officials said
on Thursday.
The blaze ripped through the offices, guest quarters, chapel
and monks' rooms of the Hilandariou monastery before being put
out after almost 12 hours, fire brigade officials said.
"There is serious damage to the monastery," said a fire
brigade official from the town of Polygyros, some 50 km (31
miles) west of the monastery. "The administrative quarters, the
roof and several walls and rooms have been destroyed."
The fire started in a stove, the official said.
Hilandariou was home to about 30 Serb monks, and was one of
20 monastic communities on Greece's holy Mount Athos peninsula,
a religious sanctuary established more than 1,000 years ago.
Women are banned from the area, which is regarded as the home of
Orthodox Christianity.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica pledged to help
restore the monastery. "The government has entered into contact
with the (Serb) Patriarchy where we unfortunately heard that the
damages seem to be huge," he told reporters.
Serbian television appealed for donations.
Monks at the Serb monastery on the isolated peninsula
battled the blaze for hours before firefighters from nearby
towns were called in for help.
Rescuers had to use boats to access the monastery because of
the rugged terrain and the lack of roads. The monks managed to
remove some artefacts but were unable to rescue all of them.
"The monastery is made of wood so you can imagine what a
tricky situation it is trying to extinguish all pockets of fire
and make sure the rescuers come out safe," the fire brigade
official said.
"Hidden rooms and chambers, small attics and wooden doors
and panels made the blaze even more difficult to battle."
Communicating with the Serb monks, who speak little Greek,
was also a problem, he said.
(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic in Belgrade)