Greece worries terrorism will further hurt tourism

This week's bombing of an American military bus hits what has long been a touchy subject for Athens - terrorism in Greece. Athens appears to be doing its best to down play the threat in an attempt to assuage concern among tourists and United States military personnel.

The concerns follow Monday's bombing of a US military bus near Athens - which injured nine US airmen and two passersby - and the vow by the group that took responsibility to continue such attacks. The incident was a carbon copy of April's remote-control car-bomb attack on another bus carrying US military personnel. The shadowy November 17 urban guerrilla group claimed both bombings.

In a communiqu'e, November 17 said, ``these revolutionary actions will continue until the American bases in Greece are closed.'' It described impending talks on a new bases' accord as a ``deceit at the expense of the Greek people.''

The attacks and the pledge for future action, worry both Greek and US officials. ``We certainly take [the group] seriously,'' a US Embassy spokesman said, with no further comment. Since the April incident, US military personnel have been transported in unmarked buses and their private cars now bear Greek license plates instead of the usual Air Force plates.

Greek officials are trying to minimize the impact the bombings may have on the tourist trade and on negotiations over the bases, scheduled to start in September. A government spokesman refused to comment on November 17's statement beyond saying, ``We are not in the habit of carrying on a dialogue with terrorists.''

This response was an obvious reference to a recent row with Washington, in which the US Ambassador to Greece reportedly asked Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias about Athens' alleged contacts with the Abu Nidal terrorist group. At that time, in early July, Greece demanded an apology and said the question of the bases would remain closed until an apology was received. The US later that month issued a letter of ``explanation'' that cleared the air and led to the scheduling of next month's talks.

But even with these bumps in US-Greek relations smoothed out for now, events have laid bare the sensitivity to the mere mention of terrorists in a country where tourism is the principal foreign-exchange earner.

Tourism revenues have still not recovered to levels reached before the June 1985 hijacking of a TWA jetliner from Athens and the subsequent US advisory against travel to Greece. Though the advisory was lifted two months later and Athens airport security was stiffened, both 1985 and 1986 were disastrous tourist years for Greece - mainly due to the absence of big-spending US tourists.

Greek sensitivity also runs high because no November 17 members have ever been apprehended - going back nine assassinations to the 1975 killing of the Athens chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency. The group also claims responsibility for a 1983 bar bombing that injured 63 US servicemen. Athens suspects there are only five or six actual gang members, and that most attacks are contracted out to other European terrorist groups.

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