Cyprus starts to bury its dead from air tragedy

NICOSIA – A grief-stricken Cyprus yesterday began to bury the first of its air crash victims after a Cypriot plane plunged into a hillside outside Athens, killing all 121 on board. The majority of those on Sunday’s doomed Helios Airways flight ZU522 were Cypriots, making it the worst air disaster to befall the island. The local press has been full of tragic stories about whole families wiped out and young children left orphaned. «Today is the first funeral after the tragic events of the crash in Greece,» said Health Minister Andreas Gavrielides. «We are now at the end of a journey for one family and we will support them and the other families… there are many more funerals to come,» said a tearful minister. The funeral service, in the capital Nicosia, was for the co-pilot Charalambos Charalambous, 40, who leaves behind a wife and four children. The family of Charalambous, who had worked in Britain for 12 years and only returned to the island to be near his mother, are bitter and say he had constantly complained about the technical problems on the crashed aircraft. «My father kept a diary about the problems of the airline and if that gets out the company will close,» his son Yiannis Charalambous told local Mega TV. «We don’t want revenge; we want the truth to come out.» The co-pilot was among 23 bodies flown back to Cyprus late on Tuesday from Greece after being identified by their relatives. The German pilot’s body has yet to be found. Another funeral was to be held later yesterday for a couple who were killed in the crash, the circumstances of which remain shrouded in mystery. Cypriot police, heading the investigation into the crash and the airline, held a meeting with Attorney-General Petros Clerides, who was briefed about the problem which could see the company facing negligence charges. «Investigations are at a preliminary stage. The attorney-general has told us to look into possible criminal acts,» said chief police investigator George Aristidou. On Monday, police raided Helios’s Cyprus offices. They took documents, the plane’s log book and have also interviewed former Helios pilots, mechanics and travelers who have a complaint against the company. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos was to be briefed on the Greek investigation into the air disaster when he flies to Athens later in the day, before visiting the crash site. The government declared three days of official mourning but in some of the worst-hit towns and villages on the resort island of less than a million people some municipalities declared longer periods. The southeastern town of Paralimni, which lost 16 dead, five of them from a single family, announced 40 days of mourning. One Paralimni family left behind a two-year-old child, Vassilis. His sister Chryso, five, father Odysseas Koutsofta, 28, and mother Xenia, 27, were all killed in the crash. Another Cypriot couple, Demos and Margarita Xiourouppa, from Adelaide in Australia, died along with their two young daughters Ioanna, nine, and Sofia 10. They left behind toddler George with grandparents in Cyprus where they were on holiday. Helios Executive Chairman Andreas Drakou has strongly rejected any suggestions the private low-cost airline skimped on safety. But the company acknowledged the crash aircraft had been involved in a previous decompression incident on a Warsaw flight in December 2004. Tourism ‘unaffected’ by crash LARNACA (AFP) – The Cyprus Tourism Organization (CTO) said yesterday that the initial figures for tourist arrivals seem to be unaffected since a Cypriot airliner crashed in Greece killing all 121 people on board. When news first broke of the crash, a terrorist attack was feared due to the as yet unexplained circumstances of the crash of the Helios Airways flight 522 into an Athens hillside on Sunday. CTO Chairman Photis Photiou agreed that an act of terrorism being quickly ruled out was a key factor in not scaring tourists away. «It seems there are no negative consequences,» said Photiou. «We’ve studied the situation and looked at initial reports and statistics, and it seems there have been no adverse effects.» Tourism revenues are crucial to the Cypriot economy, contributing an average 20 percent to GDP growth. The Cyprus economy is expected to grow by 5 percent in 2005, assisted by improved tourism figures. The crash came at the peak of the holiday season when the island is abuzz with foreign tourists and, likewise, many Cypriots take their annual summer leave overseas, with Greece and its islands popular destinations. However, some Cypriots have gone on television and radio to voice their reluctance to travel with Helios Airways and said they are seeking alternative arrangements. Local Sigma television reported that around 100 Cypriots holidaying on the Greek island of Crete were refusing to fly back with Helios yesterday. «There is the psychological factor, with people not wanting to fly on the same airline; this happens in all such incidents around the world,» said Photiou. Helios says it is continuing to fly and trying to keep to its normal schedule with some minor delays. Ironically, there was an upsurge in tourists coming to the holiday island following the bombings in neighboring Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort in July. Authorities said that more tourists were coming to Cyprus because it was viewed as a «safe» destination. Earlier this month, hundreds of Israeli tourists traveling on cruise ships were diverted to Cyprus due to a terror alert in Turkey about possible attacks against Israeli targets. More than 2.3 million tourists visited Cyprus last year and at least half of them were British, with the next biggest group coming from Germany.

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