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Five on trial in Greece over helicopter prison break

world Updated: Feb 24, 2009 16:23 IST

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Four prison guards and a pilot faced a swift trial on Tuesday after two convicts' repeated a spectacular helicopter escape from an Athens high security prison over the weekend, a justice source said.

The guards and pilot are accused of "participation" in the prison break a charge imputing negligence and face sentences of up to four years in prison.

But Dimitris Tsovolas, lawyer for the guards, said the authorities were seeking scapegoats in the fast track trial and threatened to sue the justice minister.

The helicopter pilot has claimed he was abducted by an armed couple and coerced into taking part in the daring escape plot.

Bank robber and kidnapper Vassilis Paleokostas and convicted killer Alket Rizai used a rope ladder on Sunday to board the helicopter and escape from the prison of Korydallos in a western suburb of Athens.

It was a repeat performance of the helicopter escape they pulled off from the same jail in June 2006. But for their weekend break-out escape, their trial for the 2006 escape out would have started on Monday.

This second escape has made a laughing stock of the Greek government, which had pledged to increase security measures at Korydallos after the duo broke out in the same manner in June 2006.

The helicopter was later found abandoned in the Kapandriti region north of Athens.

Commandos and police have been deployed in mountainous central and northern parts of the country where the two are known to have hidden in the past.

Officers have set up road blocks and conducted searches of abandoned buildings in the area, while the border police have also stepped up security. Police said they believed the two escapees were still inside the country.

Paleokostas was picked up in 2008 following his kidnapping of a business tycoon for a ransom of 12 million euros (15 million dollars). But about half of was never recovered.

Paleokostas' brother and partner-in-crime Nikos helped the two break free the first time round after escaping from the facility himself, only to be recaptured in September 2006.

Justice Minister Nikos Dendias has already ordered an inquiry and forced a number of officials to resign, including the jail's director and the inspector for Greece's penitentiary system.

Another senior justice ministry official and eight guards were also suspended on Monday night, Dendias said.

The minister said he believed the escapees had inside help and he has ordered checks on the bank accounts of guards in charge of the prison wing where the two men were being held.

He also ordered clampdown on the use of mobile phones by inmates.