Greek police scoured the country yesterday for two convicts who orchestrated a brazen helicopter prison break for the second time in three years, deeply embarrassing authorities who had vowed to improve security.
Vassilis Paleokostas, a bank robber who is among Greece’s most notorious convicts, and Alket Rizaj, 34, 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 in August. While on the run, he was suspected of masterminding last June’s kidnapping of a prominent Greek industrialist, Giorgos Mylonas, who was held for 13 days until his family paid a ransom.
Sunday’s prison break was another deeply embarrassing blow for Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. His conservative government, which holds a razor-thin majority of one seat in parliament, has been buffeted by financial scandals, weeks of extensive riots sparked by the fatal police shooting of a teenager in December and the re-emergence of domestic terrorism.
Karamanlis rejected opposition calls on Sunday for early elections, but called a meeting for yesterday to discuss the prison break.
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 that I will not accept ... I will take measures as harsh as necessary,” he said after visiting the prison on Sunday evening.
Police arrested three prison guards and the helicopter pilot yesterday.
Dendias has also called for a probe into the bank accounts of all the guards working in the wing where the two convicts were held.
A ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Paleokostas is believed to have about 5 million euros (US$6.4 million) stashed away from the ransom reportedly paid to free Mylonas.
Although the exact details of Sunday’s escape were unclear, 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.
A local resident captured part of the escape on amateur video.
The grainy footage shows a helicopter rising from the prison and flying off across the city after shots are heard.
The pilot was later found bound, gagged and with a hood over his head. He reportedly told police the helicopter was chartered by a couple who said they wanted to go from the town of Itea in central Greece to Athens. He said he had been threatened with an automatic AK-47 rifle and a grenade and forced to fly to the prison.
Police said that the helicopter, found abandoned near a highway north of Athens, was struck by a bullet that hit its fuel tank and sprung a leak.
The two convicts had been held in solitary confinement, but were allowed to take their daily walk on the prison grounds together, despite their previous escape.
Paleokostas was serving prison sentences of more that 25 years for a 1995 kidnapping, several robberies and arms possession. His previous escape operation had been masterminded by his elder brother Nikos, himself a convicted criminal who escaped from the same prison in 1990 during a mass breakout.