Forest fires in Algeria killed 42 people on Tuesday, including 25 soldiers deployed to help put out the blaze, the government said, as thick clouds of smoke covered much of the mountainous Kabylie region east of the capital.

Dozens of separate fires have raged through forest areas across northern Algeria since Monday night and Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud accused arsonists of igniting the flames, without providing more details on the allegations.

“Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of about 50 fires across several localities,” he said.

Last week, a European Union atmosphere monitor said the Mediterranean had become a wildfire hotspot as massive blazes engulfed forests in Turkey and Greece, aided by a heatwave. read more

Residents of the Tizi Ouzou region in Kabylie used tree branches to try to smother burning patches of forest or hurled water from plastic containers in a desperate effort to douse the fire.

The soldiers were killed in different areas, some while trying to extinguish the flames and others after they were cut off by the spreading fire, Kabylie residents said. The Defence Ministry said more soldiers had been badly injured with burns.