Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Cyprus begins recovery of wreckage of military plane and human remains 41 years after its crash

Cypriot authorities have started recovering the debris of a Greek military transport plane 41 years after it crashed, an official said on Monday.

Crews started an excavation of a man-made earth hill last week in search for the debris of the French-built Noratlas transport plane, which was shot down by friendly fire as it approached for landing at the now defunct Nicosia airport during the 1974 war between Cyprus and Turkey.

"Digging crews have recovered a wing of the plane and also smaller pieces, including a fuel gauge. We believe they are not far away from the main target of the digging which is the main part of the fuselage," Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Photis Photiou told the state radio.

Authorities believe that inside the fuselage are the remains of up to 19 Greek commandos who were killed in the crash.

They were part of a battalion which was being transported to Cyprus to reinforce the Cypriot National Guard as it was facing much superior Turkish troops who landed on the eastern Mediterranean island on July 20, 1974, in reaction to a coup by Greek army officers a week earlier.

A total of 15 Noratlas transport planes, built circa 1950, were involved in the clandestine operation.

Thirteen of the planes which took off from Crete made it to Cyprus, one landed in Rhodes and one returned to Crete.

Due to bad communications and battle confusion, the last one of the planes was fired at by Greek Cypriot soldiers at dawn on July 22, 1974. It crashed about 1 kilometer from the runaway, killing all but one of the 32 commandos and crew.

Twelve bodies were recovered at the time, but the rest were buried under a mound of earth along with the debris of the plane and the crash-site was turned into a Tomb for the Fallen and a military cemetery.

Relatives of two of the other 19 commandos applied to the European Court of Human Rights demanding the return of their remains and the Cypriot government accepted an out of court settlement to try to recover the remains.

Cypriot authorities have enlisted the assistance of an expert from Australia specializing in digging in war related sites, in search of the debris and the remains of the soldiers.

"They have to proceed carefully and at slow pace as there is information that explosives were carried in the plane and they may have not exploded," said Photiou.

The only survivor of the crash, Thanasis Zefiriou, was at hand when the excavation started.

He said he managed to pry the plane door open before it was completely engulfed in flames and jumped out. He was later found unconscious by National Guard soldiers and taken to hospital.

The recovery operation is expected to be completed by November.

Relatives of the missing commandos have provided DNA to identify any remains found on the crash site.

A total of about 1,000 people, most of them Greek Cypriots, are still missing since the 1974 fighting, which ended in Turkish troops occupying about 37 per cent of Cyprus territory.

United Nations brokered negotiations for the reunification of the island are currently under way.

Tuesday 25 August 2015



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