Air Mishap Kills Greek Official

An Greek government jet swooped into a mid-air plunge late Tuesday that killed six people aboard, including a minister that was considered a rising political star in Athens. Greek and Romanian experts immediately launched an investigation.

Alternate Greek Foreign Minister Yannis Kranidiotis died on his way to Bucharest for a meeting on Balkan cooperation. Romanian authorities postponed the meeting, to have been attended by foreign ministers from the region.

Kranidiotis, 52, was born in Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot government there declared three days of national mourning. He was seen as one of the architects of recently improving relations between Greece and arch-foe Turkey.

Â"We are very shaken, the whole government, the whole ministryÂ" said Foreign Minister George Papandreou, visibly upset. Â"I personally can't believe it. We lost people giving a battle for peace in the Balkans. I've lost a friend. ... Greece and Cyprus have lost a tireless worker for human rights.Â"

In Athens, Greek government spokesman Dimitris Reppas said first indications showed there was something wrong with the plane and that weather conditions were not a factor.

He said the French-built Falcon jet was carefully checked because it carried top government officials. It was last used by Prime Minister Costas Simitis in July to fly from the island of Crete to a Balkan reconstruction summit in Sarajevo.

The plane suddenly plunged thousands of feet as it was approaching Bucharest's Otopeni airport. Romanian press reports said it nose-dived from 22,000 feet to 5,000 feet before the pilot regained control. Greek reports said it plunged from 24,000 feet to 3,000 feet.

Greek flag carrier Olympic Airways, which maintained the aircraft bought from France in 1993, issued a statement saying it suddenly lost altitude when flying at 15,000 feet.

Greek Transport Minister Tassos Mandelis, who flew to Bucharest after the accident, told a news conference five Greek civilian and military aviation experts had joined Romanian officials in the investigation.

He refused all comment on what might have caused the accident. Â"The cause...will be known only after the data provided by the flight recorders, pilots' testimonies and contacts between the aircraft and the control tower have been evaluated.Â"

The plane had been carrying Greek officials and journalists to the Balkans meeting. All seven others aboard the aircraft were injured and two remained in critical condition in hospital.

Kranidiotis's 23-year-old son Nikos was among the dead, also the minister's bodyguard, the flight engineer and two journalists.

Romanian aviation officials told reporters shortly after the incident that the crew had contacted the Otopeni control tower to report it had Â"problems with the flight commands and that the aircraft had behaved in a violent manner.Â"

Seat belts appeared to have saved the surivors' lives.

Â"The plane started to see-saw suddenly. It all happened in a few minutes. I was wearing a seat belt. Others, including Mr. Kranidiotis, were standing talking to each other in the back.Â" said one of the surviving journalists, Alfonsos Vitalis.

Otopeni airport's chief inspector Nelu Pene, first to go aboard the plane after it touched down safely, said: Â"There was a lot of luggage and catering things strewn about. When I entered, I saw bodies lying in strange positions. Some had blood on them.Â"

Apart from the deputy minister and his son, two journalists, Kranidiotis' bodyguard and the plane's engineer were killed.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report