Helicopter with 17 on board crashes in northern Aegean

Seventeen people were killed after a military helicopter carrying a delegation of senior Orthodox clerics crashed in the northern Aegean on Saturday, in an accident which cost the air force chief of staff his job and sparked a heated exchange between the government and the main opposition party. By late yesterday, navy and coast guard rescue teams had recovered nine corpses – including those of Petros, Patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Africa, and Chrysostomos, Bishop of Carthage – from waters a few miles south of the northern Halkidiki peninsula. The Egypt-based patriarch, accompanied by senior church officials and close aides, had been traveling in a Greek army Chinook twin-rotor transport helicopter to the monastic community on Mount Athos. The aircraft, which carried a crew of five, had taken off from an army camp in Kareas, eastern Athens, at 9.35 a.m. and was due to arrive at Mount Athos about an hour and a half later. The pilot last spoke to air traffic controllers just before 11 a.m. It apparently took two hours for senior military or government officials to get wind of the crash. The army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Nikolaos Douvas, told journalists he had been briefed around 1.15 p.m., and that Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos had been informed before that. The Merchant Marine Ministry, which was deeply involved in the search-and-rescue operation, said it was informed around 1.45 p.m. that the helicopter might have crashed in the area of Mount Athos. The wreckage was finally located two hours later, some 5.5 miles south of Cape Ambelos, at the southern tip of Sithonia, the central promontory in the three-pronged Halkidiki peninsula. Rescue crews located seven corpses in the sea on Saturday, while after an all-night search – by an air force C-130 heavy transport aircraft, three Super Puma helicopters, and a flotilla of navy and coast-guard vessels – another two bodies were found 11 miles south of Cape Ambelos. Apart from the 55-year-old, Cyprus-born patriarch and the bishop, the dead were identified as Archimandrite Arsenios, abbot of the Machaira Monastery, Archimandrite Kallistratos Economou, cleric Nektarios Kontogiorgos, patriarchal aides Patroklos Papastefanou and Georgios Xenoudakis, the patriarch’s brother, Georgios Papapetrou, and army Warrant Officer Stylianos Raptis. Those still missing included the bishops of Piloussio, Carthage and Madagascar. President Costis Stephanopoulos, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, opposition leader George Papandreou and party leaders, as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios and the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos, expressed their sorrow over the accident. The government’s immediate reaction was to sack the air force chief of staff, Lieutenant General Panayiotis Papanikolaou. A question of responsibility Premier Costas Karamanlis stressed that the crash was not a political issue but raised questions about the capabilities of the military.«The matter of the accident itself is different from the matter of the delay in providing the information about the helicopter’s loss,» he said. «There is a responsibility for this, not political responsibility but responsibility concerning the functioning of the armed forces.» But PASOK’s spokeswoman for defense, Anna Diamantopoulou, declared, «The government has a political responsibility, which cannot be shifted elsewhere.» Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos countered that PASOK, which ruled until last March, was to blame for having let the armed forces become «lax and inefficient.»

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