updated 2/22/2009 2:39:22 PM ET 2009-02-22T19:39:22

For the second time in their lives, two robbers escaped from a high-security Greek prison on Sunday by scaling a rope ladder to a hovering helicopter, authorities said. The escape came amid a gunbattle with guards.

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 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.

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

Scouring area for any sign of escapees
Later Sunday, an elderly couple found the helicopter abandoned near a highway north of Athens, police said. The pilot was bound, gagged and had a hood over his head. He 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.

Residents gave conflicting reports about the number of vehicles that sped away from the helicopter's landing site, police said. Police helicopters were scouring the vicinity for any sign of the escaped convicts.

Authorities had at first feared that up to four people might have escaped, but a second count of the prison's inmates confirmed that only two were missing.

Paleokostas and Rizaj were to appear before a magistrate 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.

Convicted of 16 bank robberies
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. Both men are considered criminals rather than those who commit violence to support political motives.

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.

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