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Police Arrest Fifth Person In Gas Threat Probe

May 15, 1987 GMT

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Police arrested a woman in Nicosia early Friday in connection with a bizarre plot to release deadly dioxin gas over Cyprus unless the government paid the extortionists $15 million, police commander Frixous Yiangou announced.

Police arrested Thecla Andrea Challouma, 21, at her home in Nicosia’s Strovolos district the day after Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad arrested her sister, Keti Koupparis, and three men, including Mrs. Koupparis’ husband, in London in connection with the plot after a two-month investigation.

Yiangou identified two of the men as London-born Panos Koupparis, a 35- year-old businessman, and his brother Jason. He told a news conference in Nicosia that more arrests were possible.

The five suspects, of Greek Cypriot origin, all face charges of demanding money by menace, he said.

The police chief said the threat to unleash clouds of dioxin, a toxic gas, over Nicosia and other parts of this eastern Mediterranean island was first made in a letter signed by ″Commander Nemo of Force Majeure,″ a previously unknown group. The letter was sent from London on March 23 to Cyprus’ president, Spyros Kyprianou.

He said the blackmailers claimed the dioxin would be released ″by radio- controlled devices operated remotely through satellite and computer links.″ He did not elaborate.

So far, he said, no dioxin gas has been found on the island, which has been divided into Greek and Turkish Cypriot sectors since 1974, when Turkey invaded and seized the northern part of the island.

In mild doses, dioxin can cause skin problems, but larger amounts can lead to heart, liver and central nervous system damage. Dioxin has been used in chemical warfare, and was the poison released from a disinfectant plant in the northern Italian town of Seveso on July 10, 1976 in the world’s first toxic gas disaster. No one was killed in the 1976 disaster.

Yiangou said no money was handed over to the gang.

The silver-haired police chief said the Cypriots initially suspected that the 5-page threat was probably a student hoax.

But ″the wording of the letter suggested the involvement of scientific experts and electronic engineers,″ he said.

Yiangou flew to London in March to coordinate with Scotland Yard, which mounted an investigation codenamed Operation Drifter. Police sources said it involved undercover surveillance and wiretaps.

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A man identifying himself as ″Commander Nemo″ telephoned Kyprianou’s presidential palace at 2.a.m. April 1, ″but did not get through to anyone in authority,″ the police chief said. But, without elaborating, he said that a woman, her face masked by a scarf, later left an envelope for ″Nemo″ at the airport at Larnaca, south of Nicosia.

The envelope contained a round-trip air ticket from Larnaca to Manchester in central England, about $80 and an excess baggage ticket for a package weighing about 200 pounds - about the weight of $15 million in small bills, Yiangou noted.

He said the ticket had been bought earlier by a man whose head was bandaged except for one eye and his mouth. The man told the ticket clerk he had been badly scratched by a cat.

The ticket and excess baggage payment cost 762 Cyprus pounds - nearly $1,500.

″We didn’t think hoaxers would spend that kind of money,″ he said.

On April 2, a man identifying himself as Col. Digsby of MI6, Britain’s counter-intelligence agency, telephoned Cypriot authorities claiming the British knew of Force Majeure, which he said was a ″dangerous organization.″

Authorities established there was no Col. Digsby in MI6, but played along with the bluff hoping to smoke the gang out, Yiangou said.

He said ″Digsby″ became overconfident and sent a man to the Cyprus High Commission in London to ″collect money.″ Scotland Yard arrested the man and picked up the other suspects later.

Police believe that Commander Nemo and ″Digsby″ were the same man. But Yiangou declined to say whether the gang’s mastermind was among the five people arrested.

Government spokesman Petros Voscarides said that authorities in the breakaway Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish-held sector of the island, were not informed of the gas threat during the investigation.

″But if there had been indications that the blackmailers would carry out their threat we would have informed them,″ he noted.