A specialized oceanographic vessel left for the northern Aegean yesterday to join in the search for the wreckage of an army Chinook transport helicopter which crashed just south of Halkidiki on Saturday while carrying 17 people – including senior Orthodox clerics – to Mount Athos. The Interior Ministry yesterday declared a three-day period of national mourning for the accident. Nine bodies were recovered from the sea on the weekend, including that of Petros, Patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Orthodox Church in Africa. Yesterday’s search by a flotilla of 10 coast guard and navy vessels – backed by aircraft and helicopters – failed to locate the position of the US-made, twin-rotor helicopter, nor further human remains. Officials fear the strong currents that prevail in the area will have scattered the wreckage far and wide; a 120×80-centimeter section of fuselage was discovered floating 15 miles north of the Sporades island group, a long way from the spot 5.5 miles south of Cape Ambelos on Halkidiki where the aircraft is believed to have crashed. The seabed in that area reaches a depth of 0.6 miles. The oceanographic research vessel, which left the port of Piraeus yesterday, is to join in the search today. It carries a deep-sea submarine and seabed-mapping equipment. Although the helicopter was due on Mt Athos at 11 a.m. on Saturday, a series of apparent errors and misleading acts on behalf of the military delayed the search for over two hours. The government reacted by sacking the air force chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Panayiotis Papanikolaou, who complained he had been picked as a sacrificial victim. He was replaced yesterday by Major-General Georgios Avlonitis. Meanwhile, the political blame game raged on. Opposition leader George Papandreou said PM Costas Karamanlis should have sacked Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos. «From the moment the minister’s resignation was not accepted, the prime minister himself took on a heavy responsibility for this case, regarding which, while the investigation is still under way, the question of political responsibility cannot be written off,» the PASOK leader said. Government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said investigations were currently under way into the causes of the crash, and into the delay in relaying the news of the accident through military channels. The latter probe is being led by the head of the joint chiefs of staff.