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Commissioner warns Athalassa dead could be higher than thought

Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Photis Photiou

The remains of a number of missing persons buried in the area of the Athalassa psychiatric hospital in Nicosia could be greater than originally thought, Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Photis Photiou said on Wednesday.

Experts had uncovered some remains belonging to 31 people, mainly patients, killed when Turkish warplanes bombed the hospital in July 1974.

The bombs killed 33 people, including three Turkish Cypriots. The bodies of two were handed over to their families for burial while the rest were buried in a large crater created by the bombs.

The exploratory dig was carried out last month in a bid to confirm the exact location of the burial site. The remains were found at a depth of 2.5 metres, wrapped in blankets. Samples were collected from the bones to determine the quality of the genetic material, which could have been affected by debris that was dumped in the area at various times.

Speaking after a meeting on Wednesday with the relevant government services, Photiou said there was information that there could be more people buried on the site than initially thought. Identification on the samples had already begun and the results so far of tests carried out by the Institute of Neurology and Genetics on bone samples were highly encouraging, in terms of DNA extraction, he said.

Exhumations would begin in the coming weeks, he added.

“We are now at the stage where the team is dealing with this exhumation in a coordinated way,” he said and even suggested special measures should be taken to protect the site when it came to any work on nearby buildings or roads.

Photio expressed the conviction that the exhumation would be successfully completed, while several relatives of missing persons who are likely to be buried in the area have contacted the commissioner’s office as they wish to provide genetic material to facilitate the DNA testing, including one of the Turkish Cypriot families.

“For us this issue is above all humanitarian, I feel that we have a moral obligation to hand over the identified remains to families so that they can also proceed with a proper burial. This process should have been done several years ago and not waited for 43 years,” he said.

He also offered the state’s support to the relatives.

Photiou said the exact size of the crater was not yet known and that “even the number of missing persons who might be buried there is not known”.

“It could be greater but this will be confirmed when the exhumation is completed and the scientific examinations done. No one knows what we will find there,“ he added.

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