The shooting of a Greek policeman Monday escalates a simmering conflict between police and leftist groups – and raises new concern over a resurgence of the militant left in a country with a long history of such violence.
Greece has been wracked by violent street protests and attacks on government and police facilities since the Dec. 6 killing of a 15-year-old boy by a policeman.
The incident Monday, which left 21-year-old policeman Diamandis Matzounis in critical but stable condition, marks a dramatic intensification of the violence. Although protesters have previously destroyed property and hurled Molotov cocktails at police, gun violence is extremely rare.
Police say they have linked one of the guns used in the attack to an extreme left-wing group calling itself Revolutionary Struggle, which has claimed responsibility for several previous incidents. In January 2007, the group attacked the US Embassy in Athens with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Ballistics tests, say police, show that another gun used in Monday's shooting,was also used in an attack on a bus load of Greek riot police on Dec. 23. No one was seriously injured. In that case, credit for the attack was claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself Public Action. Little is known about the two groups or their ties.
Most previous attacks claimed by Revolutionary Struggle took place early in the morning when they were unlikely to kill anyone. In Monday's shooting, at least two gunmen opened fire with semiautomatic weapons on policemen guarding Greece's culture ministry. The building is located near the neighborhood where the 15-year-old boy was shot in December – a frequent site of clashes between police and leftist groups.
"They're taking advantage of the moment to try to escalate things," says Brady Kiesling, a former US diplomat and expert on far-left groups in Greece. But so far, he says, the group isn't in the same league as the extremist group November 17. That group killed at least 23 people – including US and British diplomats – during its quarter-of-a-century existence. In 2002, Greek officials finally broke up the group and arrested most of its members.
"They're not a group that does the methodically planning that 17 November did. It's much sloppier than that," says Mr. Kiesling. "It suggests to me that their own commitment to killing people is a very fragile one, which is very good."
Like November 17, however, Revolutionary Struggle expresses a far-left ideology that condemns the United States and the global capitalist system. Both groups have issued long proclamations justifying their attacks. In 1985, November 17 also retaliated against the police for the shooting of a teenage boy. They bombed a bus load of riot policemen, killing one.
But November 17 was a small, extremely disciplined group that eluded police for decades. Revolutionary Struggle first emerged in 2003, and its previous attacks, like the one against the US embassy, have been – until now – more symbolic than murderous.