A LONG-RANGE anti-aircraft missile exploded in mid-air over western Crete yesterday startling unsuspecting sunbathers, after its navigational system failed during firing practice. Fifteen acres of farmland and scrub near the village of Chordaki, in the Akrotiri area, were burnt in a fire caused by the weapon's flaming fragments.
Four seconds after its launching by a Greek airforce team at the Crete Firing Range on Akrotiri, the second out of a batch of three US-made Nike missiles had reached an altitude of 4,000 feet when its ground electronic control system observed the weapon was not responding to its navigational radar - and automatically destroyed the missile. The resulting explosion was heard 11 kilometres away, in the town of Chania.
Alarmed tourists at a nearby beach claimed that a missile passed overhead just before the explosion. But, in speaking with the Athens News' Nicholas Paphitis, an airforce spokesman stressed that the malfunctioning weapon was destroyed over the firing range, directly above the launch site. The reported missile sightings, he said, probably referred to the first or third weapons in the batch, both of which worked without a hitch.
A similar accident occurred three years ago, involving the same type of missile.
With a range of 87 nautical miles, the Nike is the Greek airforce's main long-range anti-aircraft missile and is used for the defence of Athens. Acquired in the late Fifties, it will soon be replaced with a modern equivalent - either the Russian S-300 or the US-made Patriot.
The Akrotiri range is chiefly used by Nato forces stationed on the island, and well as the Greek army, airforce and navy.
Updated July 20, 1998