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Greece hunts helicopter escapees

GREEK police scoured the country yesterday for two convicts who orchestrated a brazen helicopter prison break for the second time in three years, embarrassing authorities who had vowed to improve security.

Police also arrested four prison guards and the helicopter pilot yesterday. Three top Greek officials were fired for the security lapse, and the Justice Minister called for an investigation into the bank accounts of all guards working in the wing where the two convicts were held.

Notorious convict and bank robber Vassilis Paleokostas and Alket Rizaj were picked up on Sunday afternoon by a helicopter that flew over the courtyard of Athens' Korydallos prison.

The two had escaped the exact same way from the same prison in June 2006 and had been due to appear in court yesterday in connection with that escape.

Paleokostas, 42, had remained at large for more than two years until being recaptured last August. While on the run, he is suspected of masterminding the June 2008 kidnapping of Greek industrialist Giorgos Mylonas, who was held for 13 days until his family paid a ransom.

Sunday's prison break was yet another blow for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. His conservative government, which holds just a one-seat majority in Parliament, has been buffeted by financial scandals, weeks of extensive riots sparked by the fatal police shooting of a teenager last December and the re-emergence of domestic terrorism.

Justice Minister Nikos Dendias fired three top officials for the escape - the ministry's top prison security official, the inspector-general of prisons and the head of the Korydallos prison.

"This (escape) was an insult which I will not accept ... I will take measures as harsh as necessary," he said after visiting the prison.

A ministry official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said guards' bank accounts were being investigated because Paleokostas is believed to have 5 million euros (US$6.4 million) stashed away from the Mylonas ransom.

The Justice Ministry said Paleokostas and his accomplice climbed a rope ladder thrown to them by a woman passenger in the helicopter.

Guards on the ground opened fire and the woman fired back with an automatic rifle, authorities said. No injuries were reported.

The pilot was found later bound, gagged and with a hood over his head. He reportedly told police the helicopter was chartered by a couple who then threatened him with an AK-47 rifle to fly to the prison.

Police said the helicopter, found abandoned near a highway north of Athens, was struck by a bullet that hit its fuel tank and sprung a leak.

Rizaj, 34, an Albanian immigrant, was serving a life term for murder. He has also been charged with carrying out two contract killings while on the run after the June 2006 helicopter escape.


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