Firefight with prison guards foils convicted murderer's dramatic helicopter escape from jail

Panagiotis Vlastos attempted to break out of prison using a chartered helicopter full of heavily armed men

Greek prison guards have foiled a plot to help a convicted killer escape from prison for the fourth time by shooting him and forcing a helicopter full of heavily armed men to land in a car park.

The chartered helicopter swooped down on Trikala prison courtyard yesterday, with its passengers using a hook and rope in an attempt to dismantle the prison’s chicken-wire fencing.

When that didn’t work, a rope was lowered into the courtyard in a bid to help convicted murderer Panagiotis Vlastos to escape.

It is believed that an unnamed Albanian national who was in the courtyard with the 43-year-old at the time may also have been part of the escape plan.

The helicopter was carrying two armed passengers who used AK-47 assault rifles to fire at guards as the rope was lowered. It is believed a separate pilot and technician were also on board.

One guard was left slightly injured by shards of flying glass, but he and others managed to return fire and injure the technician and Vlastos himself, who had been able to scramble up the rope and into the helicopter.

After being wounded in the gunfight, Vlastos fell three metres from the helicopter back onto the courtyard floor. The helicopter was subsequently forced to land in a nearby car park.

Vlastos, 43, is a convicted murderer and racketeer serving a life term who had tried and failed three times before to escape from prison.

Prison officials told TV stations Mega and NET that they recovered well over 500 bullets fired from the helicopter. The Ministry of Justice, in statements describing the escape attempt, added that the helicopter passengers also carried, but did not use, “improvised explosive devices.”

Vlastos is currently being treated in the prison hospital as his leg wounds were not deemed serious enough for a transfer elsewhere. The technician's hand was slightly wounded in the gunfight.

It was not immediately clear if the pilot and flight technician had willingly participated in the escape attempt or had been forced to fly to the prison, which is located 205 miles northwest of Athens.

Also unclear was whether the second would-be escapee was in on the scheme or just happened to be in the courtyard and tried to take advantage of the situation.

The helicopter was hired from a western Athens suburb and was supposed to fly to Thessaloniki, in northern Greece. But it deviated from is flight path to head to the prison.

This is the third time a helicopter has been used in an attempted prison escape in Greece.

Convicted criminals Vassilis Paleokostas and Alket Rizaj were whisked by helicopter from the high-security Korydallos prison in Athens in June 2006. They were caught, but escaped for a second time - again using a helicopter - in February 2009. Paleokostas is still at large.

Vlastos was first arrested in 1994 in the murder of two members of a rival criminal gang. He was convicted last year as the behind-the-bars mastermind of the kidnapping of shipping tycoon Pericles Panagopoulos.

Panagopoulos was kidnapped in January 2009 and released after eight days, when a ransom of €30 million was paid.

While awaiting trial for the kidnapping, Vlastos tried to escape in December 2011 from Korydallos prison along with three members of armed anarchist group Conspiracy Nuclei of Fire.

The four used a pistol and knives to take three prison guards and 25 visiting relatives of other prisoners hostage, before eventually surrendering to authorities after a five-hour standoff.

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