mysterious airliner crash in greece

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    ABC Online;

    A Cypriot Boeing 737 airliner with at least 110 people on board has crashed, with the pilots apparently slumped at the controls, near the Greek capital Athens.

    A spokesman for the Greek army chief-of-staff said hijacking "could not be ruled out".

    "An act of piracy is likely," said the spokesman, Gerassimos Kalpoyannakis.

    Just before the crash, air force crew observed the airline's pilots doubled up in the cabin, an air traffic controller said.

    The pilots of the two F-16 fighters jets that were sent up to escort the airliner before the crash "saw a situation that was not normal in the pilots' cabin", Mr Kalpoyannakis said.

    He said the plane crashed at Varnava, an uninhabited area about 40 kilometres north-east of Athens and not on the Euboea peninsula as previously reported by the Athens control tower.

    He said teams of rescue workers, fire-fighters and ambulances were on their way to the scene and that all the hospitals in the region had been placed on emergency status.

    There was no immediate word on casualties.

    "The plane has crashed," said Iannis Pantazatos, who was in charge of the Athens airport control tower.

    "The information was given to us by the air force, which sent two fighters to escort the aircraft."

    Shortly before the crashed, Mr Pantazatos told AFP: "The airport lost all contact with the plane, which should have landed in the late morning, and two air force planes sent up in reconnaissance found it flying above the Euboea peninsula, but they saw the pilots doubled up in the cabin."

    "We do not know how the plane is flying. It is being escorted by the military planes and the airport is in a state of emergency." he said.

    AFP says the Helios airways plane, flying from Larnaca in Cyprus to Athens, was carrying 115 passengers and six crew, while Reuters reports 110 were on board.

    Helios, established in 1999, is the first private airline in Cyprus.

    It had a fleet of four Boeing 737 jets and operated flights to London, Athens, Sofia, Dublin and Strasbourg in France.

    Dave R.

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