Image: Forensic experts examine helicopter
Mihalis Karayiannis  /  AP
Police forensic experts examine a helicopter used in the escape of convicts Vassilis Paleokostas and Alket Rizaj from Athens' high-security Korydallos prison, at a clearing north of Athens on Sunday.
updated 2/23/2009 9:31:40 PM ET 2009-02-24T02:31:40

The helicopter company offered "escapes ... to idyllic destinations." But this wasn't the kind of flight it had in mind.

For the second time in nearly three years, a notorious bank robber was lifted out of a prison where he was being held along with his Albanian accomplice in a rented chopper amid fire from prison guards. Within hours, hundreds of people had joined more than a dozen fan clubs on Facebook celebrating the pair.

Police launched a massive manhunt Monday for Vassilis Paleokostas — the robber hailed by some Greeks as a modern-day Robin Hood — and accomplice Alket Rizaj, throwing up roadblocks and checking the abandoned helicopter for fingerprints and DNA.

Police also announced the arrest of four prison guards and the helicopter pilot, who was found bound, gagged and with a hood over his head. The pilot said he had been hijacked by a man and a woman brandishing an assault rifle and a hand grenade.

The chartered helicopter was found abandoned near a highway north of Athens Sunday. It had a bullet hole in its fuel tank from the gunfight that broke out with guards during the escape, police said.

Captured — on video
A local resident captured part of the prison break on video. The grainy footage shows a helicopter rising from the prison and flying off across the city after shots are heard.

Flying low to avoid radar detection, the helicopter swooped down onto Greece's main high-security Korydallos prison Sunday afternoon, and Paleokostas and Rizaj scrambled up a rope ladder onto the roof.

Gunshots rang out, but the chopper rose almost languidly into the gray winter sky to cheers from prison inmates.

Less than three years ago, the same two men organized an almost identical escape from the Korydallos prison, located in a densely populated western Athens suburb of the same name.

They repeated their feat the day before they had been due to appear in court for their first escape, to the deep embarrassment of Greek judicial authorities and the embattled conservative government.

Suddenly, fan clubs
But while the government scrambled to put on a show of force and vowed measures to prevent further escapes, some Greeks cheered the escaped inmates.

Within hours, hundreds of people had joined more than a dozen fan clubs for Paleokostas on Facebook: "Paleokostas - Korydallos: 2-0" was one of the most popular. The pre-existing "Paleokostas you must escape again (Greek Prison Break)" gained 800 more members, taking it to more than 4,500.

Escapes from prison or police custody are not uncommon in Greece, but most occur when inmates are allowed out on furlough and few are as spectacular as this.

Many Greeks questioned how such an escape could have occurred a second time, particularly since authorities had promised to increase security after the two men flew out of prison in a chopper in June 2006.

After that escape, Paleokostas remained at large until August 2008. He is believed to have masterminded the June 2008 kidnapping of prominent industrialist Giorgos Mylonas, who was held for 13 days until his family paid a ransom.

The 42-year-old and his elder brother Nikos, who has been in prison since 2006 after spending 16 years on the run following a 1990 prison escape, were at one stage dubbed modern-day Robin Hoods.

News reports have fueled their notoriety — saying they have offered loot to the poor and vowed never to harm members of the public during their thefts.

Buffeted by scandals, riots
Sunday's escape was yet another embarrassing blow for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

His conservative government, which holds a razor-thin majority in Parliament, has been buffeted by financial scandals, weeks of extensive riots sparked by the fatal police shooting of a teenager in December and the re-emergence of domestic terrorism.

"In this country where nothing works, it appears that air transfers from Korydallos are working well," the opposition Socialist party said, adding that "elections are the only solution."

Karamanlis rejected calling early elections but convened a meeting Monday to discuss the prison break.

Justice Minister Nikos Dendias said the escape appeared to have been an inside job. "The government believes that the operation could not have succeeded without participation from within," he said after the Cabinet meeting.

He fired the ministry's top prison security official, the inspector-general of prisons and the head of the Korydallos prison on Sunday. He also called for an investigation into the bank accounts of all guards working in the wing where the two convicts were held, and suspended the ministry's head of prison policy.

Paleokostas was serving prison sentences of more that 25 years for a 1995 kidnapping, several robberies and arms possession. His previous escape operation had been masterminded by his older brother.

Nikos Paleokostas was recaptured in September 2006 and is still in jail. He has been convicted of 16 bank robberies.

Rizaj, an Albanian immigrant, was serving a life term for murder. He has also been charged with carrying out two contract killings while on the run after the June 2006 helicopter escape. He was recaptured that September.

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