Rescue flights to evacuate British holidaymakers from fire-ravaged Rhodes begin

Airline easyJet announced it will operate two rescue flights totalling 421 seats on Monday.

‘From paradise to hell,’ British tourists tell ITV News’ Joe Coshan they have been waiting for more than 20 hours for news on when they can be flown home

Repatriation flights have begun to evacuate stranded British holidaymakers stuck in a “living nightmare” from fire-ravaged Rhodes later on Monday.

Travel firm Tui has said holidaymakers have returned to the UK from Rhodes on “three dedicated flights”.Two rescue flights with 421 total seats operated by easyJet will arrive later on Monday, with a third scheduled for Tuesday. This is on top of the nine scheduled flights to the Greek island.

Authorities had already begun evacuating large swathes of the island of Corfu on the other side of Greece after fires broke out there on Sunday.

People fled as Corfu burned, ITV News’ Jay Akbar reports

A British Foreign Office spokesman confirmed a Rapid Deployment Team had arrived on Rhodes to support travel operators in bringing Brits home.

Some flights out of Rhodes were delayed on Sunday night with planes touching down in the early hours of Monday morning at Gatwick, Nottingham, Birmingham, Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle.

On Saturday, families fled their hotels, leaving their belongings behind, as the huge flames crawled closer, with some having to spend the night in local stadiums and schools.

Three coastguard vessels were evacuating two beaches in Rhodes. / Credit: Argyris Mantikos/AP

Some flight operators, including Tui, continued sending tourists to the island as late as Saturday night, with one customer complaining they had been “abandoned” there.

On Sunday, Tui suspended its flights to Rhodes until Tuesday, while Jet2 Holidays cancelled its trips until next Sunday.

However, easyJet has maintained a regular service along with fellow budget airline Ryanair, prompting criticism from consumers.

A spokeswoman for easyJet said it was doing “all it can” to help customers in Rhodes and invited those due to travel to or from the island until Saturday to change the date for free.

Asked on LBC about reports that representatives of some holiday companies operating on Rhodes “seem to have gone missing”, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said: “Well that is a deplorable state of affairs and obviously we will be investigating all of that.”

He added: “Virtually all the tour operators and holiday companies have sprung into action in the proper way and I hope that will continue.”

The scenes at Rhodes International Airport, where people are trying to get home

Helen Tonks, a mother of six from Cheshire, said she was flown into a “living nightmare” by Tui at 11pm on Saturday and discovered her hotel had been closed.

She said she and her family were “abandoned” and forced to sleep with hundreds of others on a school floor.

Ms Tonks described the decision by airlines to continue their usual service as “inexcusable and negligent – (putting) profit before safety”.

Previously the wildfire had been confined to the island’s mountainous centre but, aided by winds, very high temperatures and dry conditions, it spread on Saturday towards the coast on the island’s central-eastern side.

Greek authorities said 19,000 people had been evacuated, with the Ministry of Climate Change and Civil Protection adding it was “the largest evacuation from a wildfire in the country”.

Kevin Evans was evacuated twice with his wife and three young children, including a six-month-old baby, on Saturday as the fire rapidly spread.

He said: “We were originally in Kiotari in a villa but were moved to Gennadi at about 2pm.

Travel expert Simon Calder explains the situation for stranded families and hopeful holidaymakers

“There were lots of people in Gennadi sent from the hotels – many in just swimsuits having been told to leave everything in the hotel.

Kevin Evans could see the flames spreading over the hills from his hotel in Gennadi / Credit: Kevin Evans/PA

“As night fell, we could see the fire on the top of the hills in Kiotari. They said all the hotels were on fire.

“About midnight the fire started moving onto our side of the hill. The alerts were going off again but not to everyone at once with some people telling us to stay put and others receiving messages to evacuate.

“We left at midnight with the fire very big and close.”

Dan Jones, a sports teacher from Torquay, had to climb onto a fishing trawler with his sons on Saturday night, describing it as “the scariest moment” in his life, and adding: “What brave boys.”

The latest advice on the Foreign Office website said people in Rhodes could contact the Greek government’s own crisis management unit.

A Tui spokeswoman said the firm’s “main priority” was the safety of customers and its staff were doing “all they can” to help those affected by the fires.

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