In Greece, bombings punctuate trial of terrorist group

Friday's explosions trigger fresh concerns about terrorism and Olympic security.

With less than a year to go until the Olympic Games open in Athens, Greek terrorism is proving to be like the Hydra of mythology: No sooner do authorities sever one head than another appears.

Two bomb blasts shook central Athens Friday just as crucial testimony was unfolding in the trial of alleged leaders of the November 17 radical group.

The bombing is raising concerns about both the security of the coming games and a possible new generation of terrorists in Greece.

An unknown group calling itself the "Revolutionary Struggle" claimed responsibility for the blasts. Investigators believe that the perpetrators may be young sympathizers with November 17, whose alleged members are now on trial for murders and other crimes committed over 27 years.

"From the construction of the devices we believe them to be the work of remnants of the old guard, individuals sympathetic to November 17, who were able to use younger people to place the bombs," says a senior official at Greece's counterterrorism unit.

Authorities said the twin time-bomb explosions, within 20 minutes of each other, were a deliberate effort to kill police officers. One officer was wounded in the attacks.

"These are not your usual attacks with petrol bombs or small gas canisters against diplomats' cars and cash dispensers," warned a police spokesman. "They are sophisticated, the most sophisticated for several years, and so is their target."

Perhaps the greatest blow was to Greek pride.

Last November, Greek authorities announced that they had at last broken November 17, which took its name from a suppressed 1973 student uprising and first announced its presence after the murder of Athens CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975.

The breakthrough was hailed by US Ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller: "It's a very big development, not only in terms of domestic terrorism, but psychologically.... People are feeling proud that they finally have wrapped up this group." [Editor's note: In the original version of the story, the quote attributed to US Ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller was taken out of context.]

In rounding up the 19 alleged members of November 17, Greek police believed they had foiled the greatest domestic security threat to the Athens Games. Greece is spending a record $600 million on security for the Olympics, which open here in August. Seven nations, including the US and Australia, are assisting Greece with security preparations. In the first summer games since Sept. 11, antiterrorism units are being drilled in foiling attacks, including biological and chemical assaults.

Friday's blasts came at the end of a week in which alleged November 17 leader Alexandros Giotopoulos took the stand in what the Greek media calls the "trial of the century."

Until a failed bomb attack led authorities to their first-ever suspect last summer, November 17 was among the most elusive terrorist organizations in the world, targeting Greek industrialists, and diplomats from the US, Turkey, and Britain. The US put the group on the State Department terrorism list in the 1980s. In the weeks after the break in the case, Greek police were widely praised by the US and other foreign governments for arresting the suspects.

Seven months into the trial, however, authorities are still working to convince a skeptical public and international community that Alexandros Giotopoulos really is the mastermind of the guerrilla group's 27-year campaign of mayhem and murder. "This is the key to the whole trial. Will they manage to convict him?" a senior court source says.

The son of one of Greece's most prominent Trotskyites, Mr. Giotopoulos has maintained his innocence from the outset and sat apart from confessed November 17 operatives in the specially built courtroom in the bowels of Athens's Korydallos maximum- security prison.

The prosecution has so far failed to directly link the former student radical, now silver-haired, to any of the 23 murders or countless robberies claimed by the organization. The case hinges on claims by fellow defendants and fingerprints on manifesto documents that November 17 sent to the Greek press after each murder or attack.

The trial has unleashed criticism that Greece's war on terror is compromising civil liberties.

To put Giotopoulos and the other suspects in the dock, parliament passed a raft of antiterrorism laws that suspended the defendants' right to a trial by jury. The panel of three judges who will deliver the verdict, expected next month, were chosen amid controversy from a pool of 30 of the country's 120 magistrates.

A senior lawyer and member of the Athens Bar Association, speaking on condition of anonymity, says: "This will probably be a one-off to convict these men, but the trial will be remembered as a black mark on Greek justice."

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