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Greek riot policeman shot; extremist group suspected

Masked gunmen shot and seriously wounded a riot policeman in Athens on Monday, raising fears that weeks of unrest in Greece have given way to violence by an armed extremist group.

The officer was in critical but stable condition after being struck twice in a volley of at least 30 shots as he patrolled about 3 a.m. outside the Ministry of Culture, near a van full of officers, authorities said.

The two gunmen escaped after firing an AK-47 assault rifle and a semiautomatic pistol in the ambush in Exarchia, a university neighborhood where youth riots erupted a month ago after the shooting death of a 15-year-old boy by police.

The unrest by students and anarchists spread looting, arson, vandalism and assaults on police across the nation before subsiding over the holidays.

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Ballistic tests connected the pistol used Monday to an attack on a police station in April 2007 attributed to a far-left militant group known as Revolutionary Struggle, authorities said. The group also allegedly fired a rocket-propelled grenade on the U.S. Embassy in Athens in January 2007. There were no casualties and no arrests in that attack. The State Department has offered a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to the capture of those responsible.

Greek police were out in force Monday evening searching for suspects. Worsening the fears that extremists are taking advantage of tension in the wake of the riots, the ballistic tests showed that the assault rifle that wounded the officer was used in an incident Dec. 23 in which gunmen opened fire on a riot police van.

“I want to express how appalled and sad I am,” Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis said in a statement. “Police officers are hard-working fellow citizens. . . . Bullets fired against them are primarily aimed against democracy and society at large.”

The events revive grim images of Greece’s past. Starting in the 1970s, a far-left group known as November 17 killed 21 people, including five U.S. Embassy employees, before it was finally dismantled in 2003.

Terrorism and the December riots are separate movements, but both reflect the difficulty the Greek state has in preventing political violence, experts say. Many Greeks are indignant that officials did not respond more forcefully to the unrest, blaming a deep-seated public hostility that seems to handcuff the police.

“I think it’s that sense of impunity that poses the greatest problem to Greek officialdom,” said John Sitilides of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “We have to see this through a historical prism: It’s tied to the same general theme of the inability of Greek officialdom to crack down hard on these groups, whether terrorists or anarchists.”

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sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

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Kalovirna is a special correspondent.


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