Bomb Attacks in Greece Raise Fear of Radicalism

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ATHENS -- When alarms jolted Christos Konstas awake at 4 a.m. recently, he thought a neighbor's apartment had caught fire. But as he made his way to the building's lobby, it was clear something more nefarious had taken place.

The remnants of a crude bomb lay smoldering at the front door.

A police officer, recognizing Mr. Konstas as a television commentator who had often defended the Greek government's efforts to cope with the financial crisis, pulled him aside. "Another journalist was also just hit," the officer told him in a low voice. Within minutes, reports emerged of explosions at the homes of three more journalists.

Greece has been dealing with an outbreak of violence in recent weeks, following several months in which such activity seemed to have calmed. On Sunday, a crude bomb exploded at the country's largest shopping mall in a middle-class suburb of Athens, injuring two security guards and escalating a wave of attacks that have gripped the nation's attention. No immediate claim of responsibility was made.

The government, which just secured $60 billion in aid from its international creditors, says it is determined to crack down on lawless behavior and to press a safety agenda that, as a candidate, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had vowed to undertake.

The problem, his opponents say, is that in its bid to restore order the government is provoking exactly the violence it says it is trying to quash. They say the government's true aim is to distract public attention from a growing tax scandal that threatens the stability of the shaky governing coalition.

They point to a police raid on Dec. 20 on the Villa Amalia, a gathering point in central Athens that has been home to antiauthoritarian youth and some anarchists for two decades. While the Greek authorities called the Villa an "anarchist stronghold," its occupants described it as a cultural center offering free concerts, an occasional children's nursery and a space for publishing antiauthoritarian literature.

The police evicted the squatters, arrested eight people and confiscated gas masks, propane gas and hundreds of empty beer bottles that they said could be used to make explosives and firebombs. They conducted a second raid on Jan. 9, arresting 92 squatters who had moved back in and padlocked the building.

Within days of the second raid, violence flared. Attacks were carried out on Greek government offices, banks, businesses and other establishment symbols, including the simultaneous explosions at Mr. Konstas's building and the homes of the other journalists. The home of the government spokesman's brother was firebombed. On Monday, unidentified gunmen strafed Mr. Samaras's party headquarters with an AK-47.

The bomb that was ignited Sunday went off at 11 a.m. inside a shopping center run by a company belonging to one of Greece's wealthiest men, Spiros Latsis. About 200 people were inside when news organizations received calls warning that a bomb would explode in half an hour. The police evacuated the building and said that an investigation was under way.

So far, no one has been seriously hurt in any of the attacks, which seemed intended more for effect than harm. But they raised questions, Greek antiterrorism officials said, about whether new groups of radical left militants are reviving in the wake of the Villa Amalia eviction, perpetuating a turbulent history of violent episodes that have plagued Greece since the collapse of the military junta in 1974.

To its opponents, the timing of the raids raised questions about the government's motives. They say that Mr. Samaras's coalition partners are trying to disentangle themselves from the so-called Lagarde list scandal, involving accusations that they failed to pursue rampant tax evasion by the wealthy and well connected. The publication of the list of more than 2,000 Greeks with bank accounts in Switzerland, which the government was given two years ago but did little with, has threatened his coalition -- though on Friday the Greek Parliament voted to investigate the role played by a former finance minister, George Papaconstantinou.

"The government is entering a period of new internal instability with the Lagarde list scandal," said Yiannis Bournous, a spokesman for the opposition Syriza party. "That's exactly the reason why they chose to organize these raids, to divert people's attention." The government denies that accusation, and has accused Syriza of sympathizing with leftist radicals. "The question should not be why are we suddenly moving now," said a senior official with knowledge of the government's strategy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "It's why past governments have not stopped lawlessness from spreading."

The official acknowledged that the Villa Amalia raid and another last week on squatters at Lela Karagianni incited radical groups to new violence, and said that plans for further raids could further inflame the situation. But the crackdown is necessary, the official said, to demonstrate that the government will be willing to move forcefully against other groups -- including militant trade unions that might stand in the way of Mr. Samaras's efforts to carry out painful economic reforms and unpopular plans to privatize state assets to meet to demands by Greece's lenders.

"We want to present ourselves as successful, to start legitimizing Greece again in the eyes of the international community," the official said. "How can we impose new laws, or move ahead with reforms, when laws are being broken? It is time to get our house in order."

Greece has already been grappling with an intensification of violence by the far right, where sympathizers of a neo-fascist political party, Golden Dawn, have carried out a series of brutal attacks against immigrants, often with the police standing by.

No one has claimed responsibility for the gunfire at Mr. Samaras's party headquarters. Officials said that was more alarming, because it bore the possible imprint of Greek or Russian mafia attacks.

While the motivation for the violence remains a matter of debate, the attacks raise alarms in a country that was terrorized for decades by a group called November 17, which mounted deadly strikes against Greek politicians and businessmen. "It is clear we are in front of a new generation of activity," said one antiterrorism official. "To say these are just small bombs shows a lack of awareness about the problem." After Sunday's explosion, the Pasok Party, part of Mr. Samaras's governing coalition, said in a statement, "We are dealing with a new type of terrorism that not only picks symbolic targets but wants blood and death."

A new group calling itself the Circle of Outlaws/Nucleus of Lovers of Lawlessness-Militant Minority claimed responsibility for the attacks on journalists, and said they were meant to denounce coverage sympathetic to the government's political agenda. But it said in its statement that its main aim was to retaliate against the government for shutting down Villa Amalia.

After the journalist bombings, the group published on the Internet a call for solidarity with those evicted from Villa Amalia. Hours later, more than 4,000 sympathizers marched through Athens, waving red flags and chanting antigovernment slogans.

In a meeting one recent evening in a basement in Exarchia, a graffiti-covered neighborhood in central Athens that has long been the center of Greek anarchy movements, seven people affiliated with the Villa's anti-authoritarian movement gathered around a cigarette-strewn table.

Using only their first names, and deliberating on consensus answers to questions, they said their aim was to overthrow a status quo in which a powerful few influenced the lives of many, and replace it with social justice and equality. Arguing that Mr. Samaras was imposing "totalitarianism," they disputed the description of squatters' homes as hotbeds of lawlessness, and said the raids were aimed at detracting from the government's own shortcomings in pursuing corruption at higher levels.

While the Villa had hosted anarchists, the group denied that it was a laboratory for bomb making and said it was not affiliated with Lovers of Lawlessness. At the same time, "We don't say we don't participate in violence," said Pavlos, a trim, articulate man who was a regular there.

Pavlos drew on a rolled cigarette. "Those who govern are the ones who brought this country into the crisis, and made people poor," he said.

"We are from two directly opposite worlds that will never stop clashing." He paused, then added: "If they think they will stop a growing movement of resistance, they are wrong."

Aggelos Petropoulos contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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