Crash spawns probes

As an oceanographic research vessel started scanning the seabed south of Halkidiki for the wreckage of an army helicopter that crashed on Saturday, killing all 17 occupants, confusion grew over why government officials only learned the aircraft was missing half an hour after the search operation had started. Even then, efforts to locate the Chinook transport helicopter – which was carrying a delegation of senior clerics led by Petros, Patriarch of Alexandria and leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Africa, on a visit to Mount Athos – kicked off two hours and 45 minutes after the aircraft was due to have landed (11 a.m.). Yesterday, Health Minister Nikitas Kaklamanis said he had learned about the accident at 1.50 p.m., some 25 minutes before Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos. Reports that Deputy Foreign Minister Panayiotis Skandalakis was told at 12.30 p.m. were denied by the government yesterday. Opposition parties have called for Spiliotopoulos’s dismissal, although the government – which sacked the air force chief of staff – claims there is no question of political responsibility for the accident and the ensuing inactivity. Meanwhile, the Aegaio oceanographic research vessel began searching for the wrecked aircraft in the area where most of the nine bodies recovered so far were found, some 5.5 miles south of Cape Ambelos in the central branch of the three-pronged Halkidiki peninsula and in waters up to 1 kilometer in depth. The ship is equipped with a bathyscaphe and robot submarines. Experts said yesterday the search could take more than two weeks. A Thessaloniki military prosecutor yesterday ordered an investigation into the causes of the accident. An Athens prosecutor ordered a probe into press reports that the Chinook had presented operational problems from the day it was delivered in 2001. The body of Petros, which had been kept in the Aghios Eleftherios chapel in Athens Cathedral for the past three days, will be buried in Cairo this evening. South African President Thabo Mbeki expressed deep regret at the death of the 55-year-old patriarch, who served for a time in South Africa. «South Africans all share in mourning the death of a beloved figure of such significance in Africa and South Africa,» Mbeki said in a statement yesterday.

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