NICOSIA — New excavations near a wartime memorial on the outskirts of Cyprus’ capital Nicosia may have located a Greek military transport aircraft that was brought down by friendly fire in the opening days of Turkey’s invasion of the island 41 years ago, Cypriot officials said Aug. 5.
The announcement is raising hopes that the remains of 19 soldiers still believed to be inside the Noratlas’ incinerated fuselage could be recovered and returned to their families.
“Initial findings are positive that the aircraft is here,” said Cyprus’ Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Fotis Fotiou. “My message to the relatives is that we will do whatever it takes to find the remains of their loved ones so they can be buried according to our Orthodox Christian customs and traditions, as well as with all appropriate honors.”
Fotiou said the dig’s second, more intensive phase will begin next week with the assistance of foreign experts from countries including Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, who specialize in military-related excavations.
He said possible explosives and ammunition that may also still be inside the aircraft’s fuselage makes the recovery work particularly risky.
Cyprus Foreign Ministry official Xenophon Kallis said shards of aluminum and other metal found during the dig’s initial phase has boosted confidence that the aircraft is there.
Only one of the 28 Greek commandos and four crew members survived the aircraft’s fiery crash as it was coming in to land at Nicosia airport in the pre-dawn hours of July 22, 1974.
The plane went down under withering volleys of friendly fire from the airport’s Greek Cypriot defenders, who were fearful of an imminent landing by invading Turkish forces to take the strategically important area.
The aircraft was one of 13 that arrived from Greece to help defend against the invasion that was triggered when supporters of Cyprus’ union with Greece mounted a short-lived coup.
The east Mediterranean island nation has since been cleaved into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south.
Accounts at the time suggest that word of the arriving aircraft had reached the airport’s defenders too late. Fire from anti-aircraft batteries and other small arms tore through the ill-fated Noratlas which was third in line to land.
It burst into flames and crashed several hundred meters from the now defunct airport that straddles a U.N.-controlled buffer zone.
The remains of 12 soldiers scattered around the crash site, collected and buried at a Nicosia cemetery, have been identified through DNA analysis.
However in two separate instances, families mistakenly received remains that weren’t theirs. The mistake was rectified after remains found later at the Nicosia cemetery were positively identified and returned.