August 29, 2005

Cyprus president backs Greek probe of air crash

By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus's president said on Monday his
administration would take full responsibility if a Greek team
investigating the country's worst air disaster found that
Cypriot aviation authorities were to blame.

A Greek accident investigation team arrived in Cyprus to
pursue its search for the cause of the August 14 crash in which
a Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 crashed on a mountain near
Athens, killing all 115 passengers and six crew, almost all

The Greek investigators are trying to find out what
happened aboard the doomed aircraft to leave the pilot and
co-pilot unconscious and a trainee with an emergency oxygen
supply trying to fly the plane moments before it crashed from
lack of fuel.

The aircraft was flying from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague
with a stopover in Athens.

"We will cover all aspects of inquiry and reap as much as
possible from the Cyprus inquiries, to put it with our findings
from Greece to reach a conclusion," the head of the Greek team,
Akrivos Tsolakis, told journalists after arriving in Cyprus.

Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos issued a statement
saying that "Should there be any political responsibilities, it
burdens this government as a whole and myself personally, and
these will be assumed when and if that is estabished."

The Greek investigators want to question engineers who
serviced the aircraft before takeoff.

A whistleblower in the civil service criticized the civil
aviation department, claiming that in-flight civil aviation
checks had not been carried out for months.

Cypriot authorities say they are in full compliance with
international safety regulations, and have rejected opposition
calls for an independent inquiry into the crash.

Papadopoulos agreed, saying that an expert panel of crash
investigators was the only body competent to rule on the causes
of the disaster.

The aircraft lost contact with air traffic controllers
shortly after takeoff from Larnaca airport, prompting the Greek
airforce to scramble F16 fighters which observed the Boeing

circling on auto pilot in Greek airspace for 2-1/2 hours.

Greek fighter pilots said they saw the co-pilot of the
aircraft slumped in the cockpit, and later another individual
struggling at the controls of the plane.

Helios has confirmed that the aircraft had experienced an
air decompression problem in December, but said it had been
rectified. Decompression can lead to gradual loss of oxygen,
leading to unconsciousness.