Minister resigns amid criticism in Cyprus serial killer case

Cyprus' Justice Minister Ioanas Nicolaou talks to the media after a meeting with Cyprus' president Nicos Anastasiades at the presidential palace in capital Nicosia, Cyprus, Thursday, May 2, 2019. Nicolaou has resigned over the case of a serial killer who has confessed to killing seven foreign women and girls amid mounting reports that police had bungled their investigation when some of the victims were initially reported missing. (AP Photo/Philippos Christou)
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. Cyprus police spokesman Andreas Angelides says British experts called in to assist in the east Mediterranean island nation's serial killer case have been brought up to speed on the ongoing probe. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
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. Cyprus police spokesman Andreas Angelides says British experts called in to assist in the east Mediterranean island nation's serial killer case have been brought up to speed on the ongoing probe. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
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)

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Cypriot justice minister resigned Thursday as criticism of police mounted for mistakes that may have let a serial killer claim more victims. The president vowed that Cyprus would solve these slayings and promised better protections for the island's foreign workers.

A detained Cypriot army captain has admitted to killing seven foreign women and girls but he has not been named because he has not yet been formally charged.

Critics say Cypriot police did little to investigate the disappearances of the women because they were low-paid workers who came to this eastern Mediterranean island from other countries. Two of the victims — a Romanian mother and her eight-year-old daughter — had vanished in 2016.

Other victims include three Filipino women and one of their six-year-old daughters as well as a woman believed to be from Nepal.

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 on Thursday continued to scour the bottom of a poisonous mining lake west of Nicosia, the capital, where the suspect told police that he dumped three of his victims after putting their bodies inside suitcases. One body was found there Sunday.

Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said he was stepping down as a matter of "conscience and principle" because the killings 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 by police involving missing persons' reports because a minister "doesn't get involved nor should he get involved" in those probes. He said law enforcement authorities never told him about any such reports.

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

He said Cyprus owes an apology to the families of the victims, whose bodies will be returned to their home countries at state expense. He also announced the creation of a special department under the Ombudsman's office to examine up to 3,600 complaints filed by foreign workers against their employers.

Anastasiades on Friday is meeting with diplomats from countries with a large number domestic workers living in Cyprus to express his sorrow for the victims and to apologize for "failures in the handling of these cases."

Nicolaou 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.

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." The findings will be sent to the attorney general.

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

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

On Sunday, divers pulled a suitcase containing the badly decomposed body of a woman out of a toxic lake tied to 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.

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