A partial drop in gale-force winds early on Monday offered hard-pressed Greek firefighters a brief respite after wildfires raged unchecked for two days north of Athens, burning houses and swathes of forest while forcing thousands to flee their homes.

But Fire Brigade officials cautioned that the fires still threatened inhabited areas on the capital's northern fringes, the eastern coastal town of Nea Makri and nearby Marathon _ site of one of history's most famous battlegrounds.

``There are fewer hazardous points,'' Fire Brigade spokesman Yiannis Kappakis said. ``But the blaze is still developing.''

Several houses were gutted but there were no reports of deaths or injuries. There was huge damage to the countryside, however, with thousands of hectares of the area's rapidly dwindling forests gone.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the fire _ one of more than 90 that broke out across Greece over the weekend _ was hard to tame.

``The situation remains very difficult,'' he said after a fire brigade briefing. ``The enormous (firefighting) effort will continue on all fronts throughout the night.''

In Nea Makri, south of Marathon, local authorities said blaze stretching for 2.5-miles (four-kilometers) was tearing down a hillside towards some houses, and a dozen nuns were evacuated from a nearby Christian Orthodox convent.

``The situation is tragic right now, there's a huge fire coming our way'' Nea Makri mayor Iordanis Loizos said. ``There is nothing we can do ... but wait for the (water-dropping) planes at dawn.''

Water-dropping aircraft were to resume operations at first light Monday, assisted by aircraft from France, Italy and Cyprus. More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers and volunteers are fighting the blaze on the ground.

Officials have not said what started the fire. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and many are set intentionally _ often by unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

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