Members of the Cyprus Special Disaster Response Unit search for suitcases in a man-made lake, near the village of Mitsero outside of the capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. British forensics experts helping to tackle the Cyprus serial killer case visited a toxic lake Tuesday where a suitcase was found with a decomposed body inside as criticism mounted of how Cypriot police initially handled the disappearances of several victims. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Cyprus justice minister resigns over serial killer case

May 02, 2019 - 7:41 am

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The justice minister in Cyprus resigned Thursday amid mounting criticism that police bungled their investigations when some of the seven foreign women and girls slain by a serial killer were initially reported missing.

A Cypriot army captain has admitted to killing the women and girls. Even as the minister resigned, police on Thursday kept searching a lake and a reservoir for the bodies of three of the victims.

The victims, who came to this eastern Mediterranean island to work in low-paid jobs, include three Filipino women and the six-year-old daughter of one of them. Other victims are believed to be a woman from Nepal and a Romanian woman and her eight-year-old daughter.

Critics say Cypriot police did little to investigate the disappearances of the women because they were low-status foreign workers.

Police Chief Zacharias Chrysostomou is slated to meet with the Cypriot president on Friday amid speculation he may also be on his way out.

Search crews continued to scour the bottom of a poisonous mining lake west of the capital Nicosia where the suspect — who hasn't been named because he hasn't been formally charged yet — told police that he dumped three of his victims after putting their bodies inside suitcases.

Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said he was stepping down as a matter of "conscience and principle" because the killings that authorities have described as unprecedented have deeply shaken the island nation of just over a million people.

But Nicolaou said it was "completely unfair" to blame either himself or the government for any investigative lapses in police handling of the missing persons' reports because a minister "doesn't get involved nor should he get involved" in those investigations. He said law enforcement authorities never informed him of such reports.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said he would meet Friday with diplomats from countries with a large number domestic workers living in Cyprus to express his sorrow for the victims and to apologize on behalf of the nation for "failures in the handling of these cases."

He will also brief the diplomats on measures the government will take to improve how police handle complaints by foreign workers.

Nicolaou urged the public to keep trusting the police force and said he would ask the police complaints commission to go ahead with an independent probe into police handling of the serial killer case.

"We've all gone through difficult days because of this unprecedented case," Nicolaou said, reading from a statement after a two-hour meeting with Anastasiades.

Anastasiades said he accepted Nicolaou's resignation with "deep regret." He repeated that he shares the public's shock and revulsion over the killings and that the government is determined to solve "these abhorrent murders."

Police spokesman Andreas Angelides said the police chief has ordered a second, separate investigation into the disappearances of three of the victims who vanished in September 2016 and December 2017.

Angelides said both probes aim to uncover whether police followed proper procedures or whether mistakes were made that constitute "either disciplinary or criminal acts." Their findings will be forwarded to the attorney general.

Scotland Yard experts in Cyprus who were helping with the investigation are expected to leave Friday.

Only one victim, 38-year-old Mary Rose Tiburcio from the Philippines, has been positively identified in the case so far. Her bound body was discovered April 14 down an abandoned mineshaft.

A second body, who police believe is 28-year-old Arian Palanas Lozano, also from the Philippines, was found in the mineshaft six days later.

Authorities are separately searching a reservoir for the body of Tiburcio's six-year-old daughter Sierra.

On Sunday, divers pulled a suitcase containing the badly decomposed body of a woman out of a toxic lake that is part of a disused copper mine. Crews are searching for two more suitcases there.

The victims in the lake are believed to be Maricar Valtez Arquiola, 31, from the Philippines; Florentina Bunea, 36, from Romania; and Bunea's 8-year-old daughter, Elena Natalia.

Arquiola has been missing since December 2017 while the Romanian mother and daughter vanished in September 2016.

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