A massive manhunt is under way in Greece after two criminals mounted an audacious escape from a top security prison by helicopter – for the second time in three years.

Serial armed robber and kidnapper Vassilis Paleokostas, and his Albanian sidekick, Alket Rizai, both escaped from the Korydallos prison in western Athens two Sundays ago in a helicopter rented and hijacked at gunpoint by their accomplices. The pair staged an almost identical escape from the same prison in 2006.

They fled Korydallos prison after a helicopter landed on the roof of the prison in broad daylight and a rope ladder was thrown to them. Guards on the ground opened fire but a woman on board the helicopter shot back with an assault rifle. No injuries were reported.

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

The pilot was found later bound, gagged and with a hood over his head. He reportedly told police the helicopter – owned by a tour company offering “escapes to idyllic destinations” – was chartered by a couple who said they wanted to go from the town of Itea in central Greece to Athens.

He said he had been threatened with an automatic AK-47 rifle and a grenade and forced to fly to the prison.

The Greek Government reacted strongly to the escape with the dismissal of three senior prison officials by the justice minister in response to the escape.

Nikos Dendias said he had sacked the general secretary of the justice ministry, the inspector-general of prisons and the head of Korydallos prison after visiting the facility on Sunday evening.

“This was an insult which I will not accept… I will take measures as harsh as necessary,” he told reporters afterwards.

A number of guards have also appeared in court in relation to the escape with a senior guard receiving a three year suspended sentence from the Piraeus Magistrate’s court while a second guard received a six month suspended sentence for the illegal possession of arms.

Two other guards and a security guard as well as the helicopter pilot were found to be innocent of any involvement in the escape.

A police investigation is currently being undertaken into how the two prisoners managed to escape without being detected. Authorities suspect that prison guards were involved in the escape.

An embarrassed Greek Government announced a series of measures in response to the escape. Nikos Dendias heralded waiving the right of owners of pre-paid mobile phones to remain anonymous so police can trace suspects calls, the more selective recruitment of prison guards and better training for all prison staff.

Paleokostas and Rizai had escaped the exact same way from the same prison in June 2006 and had been due to appear in court today in connection with that escape.

Paleokostas, 42, had remained at large for more than two years until being recaptured last August.
While on the run, he 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.

Paleokostas was serving prison sentences of more than 25 years for a 1995 kidnapping, several robberies and arms possession.

Rizai, 34, 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.

The two escapees are being hailed as folk heroes by admirers of their aerial dynamics. A dozen fan clubs sprung up overnight on Facebook celebrating the pair and their daring escape.