By Elias Hazou
At the Tomb of Makedonitissa in Nicosia, work continues in the search for a Greek military transport plane shot down by friendly fire in July 1974.
Crews are carrying out the first phase, which involves dismantling the monument that sits atop a mound, almost certainly the location where the fuselage of the downed aircraft was buried.
Fotis Fotiou, Presidential Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Cyprus Mail the second phase of the operation is likely to begin early next week with the help experts coming in from abroad.
The second phase will involve digging up the earthen mound proper and starting the process of analysing and identifying the human remains, if any.
Authorities are searching for the remains of Greek airborne commandos who were on board the aircraft. They were killed when their Noratlas plane was shot down by friendly fire during the Turkish invasion early on July 22.
The ill-fated aircraft carried 28 commandos and four crew. Only one commando survived after he jumped out of the flaming transport plane before it crashed.
The remains of 12 others killed in the incident have been identified through DNA tests but 19 are still missing, believed to have been buried along with the aircraft’s fuselage.
Excavations to trace the commandos’ remains at the Lakatamia military cemetery wrapped up in May with no success so the search was moved to the Tomb of Makedonitissa.
The aircraft was part of operation ‘Niki,’ victory in Greek, a secret operation on July 21 to carry a battalion of Greek commandos from Crete to Cyprus in 15 aircraft.
Thirteen made it to Cyprus – one returned to Crete and the other landed in Rhodes.
Last weekend crews using metal detectors unearthed a small piece of the aircraft – probably from one of its wings. It measures around 50 centimetres.
Daily Politis recently published the testimony of the man- now deceased – claiming to have buried the plane in July 22 or 23, 1974.
In a deposition to police, given in December 1999, the man said his digger was commandeered by the army and he was ordered by military officers to bury the aircraft at the Makedonitissa site.
While working, the man had peeked inside the plane’s cabin, spotting inside five bodies that were charred beyond recognition. He then proceeded to fill up the cabin with earth. Later, while churning up more earth to cover up the aircraft, the digger fork accidentally picked up the body of a sixth man.
‘Niki’ was a covert operation by the Greek Air Force designed to lend assistance to Cypriot forces battling invading Turkish troops.
It’s understood, for example, that before takeoff from Crete, or en route to Cyprus, the commandos were ordered to strip off any markings that might identify them as Greek combatants.
Thirteen Noratlas aircraft reached Cyprus. In addition to the plane that crashed near Makedonitissa, two others took heavy damage – also from friendly fire – and were unable to fly back to Greece. It’s understood that these two were torched at the old Nicosia airport.
The cabinet decided in February 2014 to proceed with the excavations after the recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of the families of two Greek military officers who perished on board the plane. They had brought their case against the Republic of Cyprus.