The second, difficult and potentially dangerous, phase of a search for the remains of Greek commandos killed when their transport plane was shot down by friendly fire during the July 1974 Turkish invasion is set to begin next week with the help of foreign experts.
The remains are thought to have been buried along with the aircraft’s fuselage at what became later the Makedontissa Tomb.
The first phase of the project involved dismantling the monument that sits atop a mound, almost certainly the location where the downed aircraft was buried.
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 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.
Pieces of the Noratlas have been found but the second phase will involve painstaking work.
“The findings are positive in the sense that first indications show that the ill-fated aircraft is here,” Fotis Fotiou, Presidential Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs said.
Fotiou said the project was now entering a difficult and potentially dangerous phase.
“Because we could possibly find explosives that were on board the aircraft and this makes our work harder,” he said.
Fotiou could not say when the second phase was expected to finish. The entire excavation is scheduled to be completed by November.
“But in such excavations non one knows what we could face next and we should all be patient,” he said. “The aim is to find the remains.”
Foreign experts from Australia, Canada, Holland and other countries were expected on the island in the next few days assist in the project.
Antiquities department official Elena Meranou said it would be difficult and complicated work.
“You must understand that our work is 30 centimetres at a time,” she said. “This means we must work very carefully for our own safety, the people, the personnel, and the surrounding area.”
Meranou said they have so far dug 30 centimetres and have already found three points of interest.
Xenophon Kallis, head of the project, said this was just another excavation whose objectives were humanitarian.
The point is not to investigate what happened to the Noratlas, he said.
“Everyone’s aim is to locate the remains and deliver them to the families for a dignified burial.”
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.