Greek authorities appear to be closing in on an anti-American group long known as Europe's most elusive terrorist organization.
Police confirmed Thursday that they had uncovered a hideout containing weapons belonging to the group called "November 17," which has claimed responsibility for 22 murders in Greece, including the slayings of four US officials, since 1975.
"November 17 has always been a huge question mark," says Mary Bossis, an international security professor at Athens University. "For 27 years, we have had nothing, and now we have more than we can handle."
The group is on the US State Department's terrorism list and was among the terror groups whose assets the US ordered frozen after Sept. 11.
If evidence found this week leads to arrests, continues Ms. Bossis, "it can come to an end."
As Athens prepares to host the 2004 Olympics, Greece is under increasing international pressure to crack down on November 17. Until now, police had not made a single arrest in connection with the crimes. In fact, until this year, authorities say they knew next to nothing about the group's operations.
The country's governing socialist party PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement) has long dodged allegations that some current or former officials had November 17 connections. Last fall, a former US State Department official said he had seen evidence to support such charges, and suggested it may explain why the terrorist group has evaded capture for so long.
Bossis thinks that help from US and British law-enforcement officials in the past two years contributed to the successful bust. Reports say US and British officials helped plan the raid, but were not directly involved in it.
Greek police were led to the November 17 hideout an apartment in central Athens after responding to a bombing Saturday in nearby Piraeus. Savas Xiros, a religious-icon painter, allegedly intended to plant a bomb, but it blew up prematurely in his hand.
Police said that a handgun next to the painter had been stolen from a police officer during a November 17 attack in 1984, and used in six subsequent murders by the group. Xiros allegedly was carrying other weapons and documents which led police to the group's hideout. There, police say they found rockets, missiles, a November 17 flag, and at least one other gun that had been used in several November 17 attacks.
"We have confirmed, this is definitely a November 17 hideout," said Athens' chief of police Fotis Nassiakos in a public statement yesterday.
Two other police raids followed, including one at a seaside house where police found a typewriter that had been used for the group's communiqués. November 17 often used the same weapons, and typed its communiqués on the same typewriter, both believed to be taunts to the police, who fruitlessly hunted the group for 27 years..
The group's name refers to the date of a bloody 1973 student uprising in Athens against Greece's US-supported military dictatorship at the time.
The ultra left-wing group first appeared in 1975, when it claimed responsibility for the murder of Athens CIA chief Richard Welch. Its most recent high-profile victim was British military attaché Stephen Saunders, who was shot to death in June 2000.
Prime Minister Costas Simitis said the new findings have come in part from the government's ongoing investigations and may help bring an end to Athen's terrorism problem.
Conservative opposition leader Costas Karamanlis called Xiros' s bombing a fortunate accident. However, neither politician mentioned November 17 by name.
Xiros, who was arrested, is in serious condition in an Athens hospital, where police say he will be kept under armed guard until he can be questioned.
So far, police have questioned some 100 people.