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Cyprus stunned by plane tragedy
2005-08-15 10:19:49

By Tabitha Morgan
BBC News, Cyprus

Aug 15 - Cyprus is beginning three days of public mourning as the island of less than one million people struggles to come to terms with its biggest ever peacetime disaster.

Flags on public buildings were flying at half mast and the streets of the capital, Nicosia, were deserted.

Virtually everyone here will have known someone who is affected.

Many Cypriots appeared to be seeking guidance and comfort from the church.

Monday 15 August is a public holiday on the island, the day when the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the ascension into heaven of the Virgin Mary, known in Greek as the Mother of God.

Churches which would, in any case, be full for the festival, were overflowing, with the congregation spilling out into the street and cars parked up to three deep outside.

Relatives' anger

Most of the island's newspapers - normally not printed because of the public holiday - brought out special editions. Alitheia carries a close-up of a woman, her face distorted by grief, with the headline: "Why, my Mother of God?"

The front page of the English-language Cyprus Mail is dominated by a picture of the scene of the crash. It shows the plane's tail fin, decorated with the airline's logo - a giant face of the sun god Helios - embedded in the mountainside.

In its editorial, the paper attacks Helios Airways for what it describes as its "scandalous and insensitive" handling of grieving relatives in the hours immediately after the accident.

As news of the crash began to spread on Sunday, relatives - many having come straight from the beach, and still wearing shorts or swimming costumes - congregated at Larnaca airport. But it was a further six hours before the airline was able to release a comprehensive passenger list.

At one point, angry scuffles broke out as relatives attempted to break into the company's offices and had to be restrained by police. "Butchers, murderers," one man screamed at a company official.

A woman whose daughter, son and granddaughter were all on the flight became increasingly desperate.

"I am waiting here for my children," she said. "But they will not tell me anything."

One elderly man fainted and had to be carried out on a stretcher. On Monday the crew and passengers of a Helios Airways flight to Bulgaria refused to board the plane at Larnaca, the state-run Cyprus News Agency reported.

British tourists, unaware of the news from Greece, continued to arrive at the island's overcrowded airport and seemed shocked to be greeted by rows of television cameras and reporters.

Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, who cut short his holiday to chair an emergency ministerial meeting, announced his "deepest sympathy to all the relatives".

"We are standing by them and offering our support," he added.

Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat had earlier telephoned President Papadopoulos to offer his condolences.

Relatives of passengers on Flight ZU522 are expected to fly to Athens later on Monday to identify their bodies.

This disaster has affected everyone on the island and while the next three days will be ones of public mourning, private grieving will continue much longer.

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