Convicts Escape High-Security Greek Prison By Helicopter

The daring escape of two robbers from a high-security prison in Athens by helicopter — for the second time in less than three years — has rattled the Greek government, which has proceeded to dismiss three Justice Ministry officials.

Vassilis Paleokostas, 42, and Alket Rizaj, 34, were picked up by a helicopter that flew over the courtyard of Athens' Korydallos prison on Sunday afternoon. The inmates climbed a rope ladder thrown to them by a woman passenger, the Ministry of Justice said.

Guards on the ground opened fire and the woman fired back with an automatic rifle, authorities said. No injuries were reported. Police announced that the helicopter, found abandoned near a highway north of Athens, was struck by a bullet which hit its fuel tank and that fuel had been leaking.

Paleokostas and Rizaj escaped from the same prison in the same manner only three years ago.

Justice Minister Nikos Dendias announced late Sunday that he had asked for and obtained the resignations of the general secretary of the ministry, the inspector-general of prisons and the head of the Korydallos prison.

"This (escape) was an insult which I will not accept ... I will take measures as harsh as necessary," Dendias announced after a visit to the prison.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has scheduled an emergency meeting of part of his cabinet Monday to discuss the situation in the country's prisons and Sunday's escape.

Police were still searching for the fugitives late Sunday night.

The helicopter's pilot, found bound, gagged and with a hood over his head, told police the helicopter was chartered by a couple who said they wanted to go from the town of Itea in central Greece to Athens. The couple had chartered the helicopter a number of times in the previous weeks.

The pilot said that, in today's run, the couple had threatened him with an automatic AK-47 rifle and a grenade and forced him to fly to the prison.

The two convicts had been held in solitary confinement but were allowed to take their daily walk on the prison grounds together, despite their previous escape.

Paleokostas and Rizaj were to appear in court Monday in connection with their previous escape by helicopter on June 4, 2006. That operation had been masterminded by Paleokostas' elder brother Nikos, himself a convicted criminal who escaped from the same prison in 1990 during a mass breakout.

The elder Paleokostas was recaptured by authorities in September 2006 and is still in jail. He has been convicted of 16 bank robberies.

Rizaj, an Albanian immigrant, was also recaptured in September 2006, while Vassilis Paleokostas was apprehended in August 2008. While on the run, Paleokostas is suspected of masterminding the June 2008 kidnapping of a prominent Greek industrialist, Giorgos Mylonas, who was held for 13 days until his family paid a ransom.

Police are investigating whether Rizaj, during his three-month spell outside prison after his previous escape, was involved in contract killings.