Cyprus police chief sacked as anger grows over killings

Nicosia (AFP) –


Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades on Friday sacked the country's police chief, as shock over the murders of seven foreign women and girls gave way to outrage at the authorities for a botched response.

A suspect identified in local media as 35-year-old Greek Cypriot army officer Nicos Metaxas has confessed to the seven killings in a crime spree that went undetected for nearly three years.

With the island reeling from what have been dubbed its first "serial killings", Cypriot authorities have been accused of failing to properly investigate the women's disappearances due to neglect and racism.

The president on Friday fired top police officer Zacharias Chrysostomou a day after Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou announced his resignation over the case.

In a letter to Chrysostomou seen by AFP, Anastasiades decried "the apparent negligence and dereliction of duty of the police in investigating reports of missing persons".

The president told the police chief his services were being "terminated" and that official failings had meant the murder cases were not "solved in a timely manner".

"Some of the horrific crimes that shocked Cyprus could have been prevented," he wrote.

The killings came to light in mid-April when unusually heavy rains brought the body of 38-year-old Filipina Mary Rose Tiburcio to the surface of the disused mine shaft where it had been hidden.

That triggered a murder investigation which led to the arrest of army captain Metaxas on April 18.

Days later, authorities found the body of a second woman in the shaft, believed to be Arian Palanas Lozano, 28, also from the Philippines.

The suspect then guided investigators to a well near an army firing range outside the capital, where police found the body of a third victim -- an unidentified woman of Asian origin.

On Sunday, police recovered the remains of a fourth victim, stuffed in a suitcase at the bottom of a toxic man-made lake next to a disused mine southwest of the capital Nicosia.

Investigators on Friday paused their search for more bodies at the Mitsero lake as they waited for a sonar system to arrive from Spain, Fire Service Chief Marcos Trangolas told journalists.

Reporters were prevented from approaching the lake, but AFP journalists at the top of a hill overlooking it saw investigators closing a tent on the shore and a crane leaving the site.

Detectives who flew in from Britain to help with the investigation are expected to leave Cyprus on Friday.

- 'Racist disregard' -

Outrage over how authorities handled the case has prompted protests outside the presidential palace in the capital Nicosia.

In an editorial published Friday, English-language daily the Cyprus Mail said the police had "failed to properly investigate" reports that women had gone missing.

"The complete lack of professionalism, the absence of any sense of duty or responsibility, the sheer laziness and worst of all, the racist disregard for the well-being of foreign women trying to scrape a living in Cyprus were proved beyond reasonable doubt," it said.

Outgoing justice minister Nicolaou, the first senior official to quit over the scandal, said he was leaving for reasons of "principle and conscience", while adding he had no personal involvement in the case.

But the chief of the main opposition communist party AKEL, which has repeatedly called for Nicolaou's resignation, slammed the outgoing minister for failing to quit "on the first or the second day that this story broke".

"Nineteen days later, following intense public outcry and pressure to stand down from his party... this is not called political sensitivity," Andros Kyprianou said.

Anastasiades has said the government is preparing new measures to better protect foreign workers.

On Friday he met diplomats from non-EU countries who made suggestions on how best to monitor foreign workers from third countries, India's envoy to the island said.

Cyprus government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou said the president had "expressed his regret over the horrific crimes and apologised on behalf of the State and the Cypriot people to the representatives of these countries".