Five on trial in Greece over helicopter prison break

Posted at 02/24/09 8:19 PM

ATHENS - Four guards and a pilot faced a fast-track trial Tuesday after one of Greece's most notorious prisoners was winched to freedom by helicopter from a high-security prison, a justice source said.

Following Sunday's escape, which has made a laughing stock of the government, the guards and the pilot of the helicopter were accused of "participation" in the prison break, a charge imputing negligence.

They face sentences of up to four years in prison if convicted.

But the lawyer for the guards, Dimitris Tsovolas, has accused the authorities of looking for scapegoats and threatened to sue the justice minister.

And the pilot has insisted that he was abducted by an armed couple and forced into taking part in the daring escape.

Bank robber and kidnapper Vassilis Paleokostas and convicted killer Albanian national Alket Rizai used a rope ladder to board the helicopter and escape from the prison of Korydallos in a western suburb of Athens.

The helicopter was later found abandoned in the Kapandriti region north of Athens.

It was a repeat performance of the helicopter escape they pulled off from the same jail in June 2006 -- and but for their weekend break-out, their trial for the 2006 escape would have started on Monday.

This second escape has been an acute embarrassment for the Greek government, which had pledged to increase security measures at Korydallos.

Paleokostas' brother and partner-in-crime Nikos helped the two break free the first time round after escaping from the facility himself, only to be recaptured in September 2006.

And although the two brothers are the country's most notorious outlaws, they are also widely popular because of tales that they distribute part of their loot to needy families.

The Greek press meanwhile has made the most of the fiasco.

"A brazen crime, an impotent state," fumed leading daily Kathimerini.

For a second time since December -- when the fatal shooting of a youth by police sparked major street violence -- Greece appeared lawless, it noted.

Another daily, To Vima, quipped that it was probably no accident that the fugitives hired the helicopter from a company promising "clever escapes" and "complete confidentiality".

And other media reported that Internet bloggers had also joined the chorus of derision: one wit suggested that Paleokostas should be entrusted with keeping Olympic Airlines, Greece's ailing national carrier, flying.

On the ground however, the hunt for the two fugitives continues.

Commandos and police were combing the mountainous central and northern parts of the country where the two fugitives have hidden in the past.

Officers have set up road blocks and conducted searches of abandoned buildings in the area, while border police have also stepped up security.

Police said they believed the two escapees were still inside the country.

Following his first escape, Paleokostas was arrested in 2008 after kidnapping the prominent industrialist George Mylonas in Thessaloniki. But about half of the ransom of 12 million euros (15 million dollars) was never recovered.

"Paleokostas has a lot of money, over 5.5 million euros," the businessman's wife Nelly Mylonas told reporters.

In 1995, they abducted another prominent Thessaloniki businessman, Alexandros Haitoglou, releasing him unharmed after his family paid a ransom of about 734,000 euros.

Justice Minister Nikos Dendias has already forced a number of officials to resign, including the jail's director and the inspector for Greece's penitentiary system. He has also ordered an inquiry into the affair.

Another senior justice ministry official and eight guards had also been suspended on Monday night, Dendias said.

The minister said he believed the escapees had inside help and he has ordered checks on the bank accounts of guards in charge of the prison wing where the two men were being held.

He also ordered clampdown on the use of mobile phones by inmates.