Cyprus formally apologised to Greece on Tuesday as it handed over the remains of 16 Greek commandos who were killed by “friendly fire” during Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island.
The soldiers were on board a French-built Noratlas transport aircraft that was headed to Nicosia airport to reinforce the Greek Cypriot National Guard when it was mistaken for a Turkish bomber and shot down. Of the 32 people on board, just one survived.
Amid the chaos of the invasion, during which Turkish troops occupied a third of the island, the bodies of 15 of the dead were hastily buried in a mass grave still inside the wreckage of the downed aircraft.
The Cyprus government launched a search for the grave site in February 2014 after the families of two of the dead appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
It was located in August last year and a painstaking 14-month exhumation operation ensued to recover the remains.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades apologised both for the anti-aircraft fire that killed the soldiers and for the decades of delay in returning their bodies.
“For mistakes made by the Cypriot state I must express my deepest apology to all those hurt,” Anastasiades said at a memorial ceremony in Nicosia.
He said it was an “unforgivable mistake made in the confusion of battle”.
The bodies of 16 of the dead were recovered at the time and buried in a military cemetery outside Nicosia.
Their remains were repatriated to Greece in 1979, but in a tragic mix-up some were misidentified.
The remains of one of those wrongly identified were handed over on Tuesday together with those of the 15 exhumed this year.
The Turkish invasion followed an Athens-inspired Greek Cypriot coup in Nicosia seeking union with Greece. It left the Greek-officered Greek Cypriot National Guard in disarray, outnumbered and outgunned.