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Greece Tightens Noose on Guerrillas

Terrorism: Police arrest a suspected leader of a notorious group and name a gunman in the 1975 assassination of a CIA agent in Athens.

July 27, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATHENS — Greek police arrested a suspected leader of the November 17 terrorist group Friday and identified another key figure already in custody as a gunman in the first of its more than 20 assassinations--that of the CIA station chief here in 1975.

Together, the steps represent a breakthrough in the effort to crush one of the longest-lived groups to emerge from Europe's radical-left ferment of three decades ago.

After making no progress for 27 years, Greek police in recent weeks have made stunning advances, arresting suspected leaders and rank-and-file members alike. The latest is Nikos Papanastasiou, 50, arrested Friday, who has been running a souvenir shop in central Athens and who police believe is an important first-generation leader of the group.

Named after the date of a 1973 student uprising that was violently suppressed by the military junta that then ruled Greece, November 17 burst into prominence with the killing of CIA agent Richard Welch. Operating since then with seeming impunity, it was blamed for nearly two dozen killings as well as many bank robberies and the theft of weapons. It last struck in June 2000, authorities say, killing British defense attache Brig. Stephen Saunders.

In a predawn statement to police Friday that was quickly leaked to the media, a suspect arrested this week, Pavlos Serifis, 46, confessed to having been a lookout at the Welch killing and said that co-defendant Alexandros Giotopoulos was a gunman in that killing. Giotopoulos, 58, was the leader of the group, police said at the time of his arrest this month.

In the statement, Serifis also admitted being a lookout in the 1980 slayings of two Greek policemen, and he identified Giotopoulos as a gunman in that incident as well.

Greece's 20-year statute of limitations means that suspects cannot be charged with murdering Welch or the other victims before 1982, but police appear to believe that those involved in the early killings also committed crimes in the last two decades for which they can be prosecuted. Greece does not have the death penalty.

November 17 took pains to cultivate a kind of Robin Hood image, releasing stridently Marxist proclamations defending its deeds as revolutionary violence aimed at oppressors of the people. Combined with its members' ability to avoid capture, it developed an aura of invincibility that raised suspicions that leftist politicians were somehow protecting the group.

Over the years, U.S. officials repeatedly complained that Greek authorities showed insufficient determination to track down the killers. During the group's early years, a significant portion of the Greek public--angered by American support for the 1967-74 military dictatorship--appeared sympathetic to November 17's ideology, if not its methods.

Public opinion began to swing against it in the mid-1980s when the group targeted prominent Greek businessmen, and sympathy was further eroded in the last two years as relatives of victims spoke out about their suffering. With the Greek government also under pressure to prove that it can hold a safe Olympics in Athens, the capital, in 2004, police work has been stepped up. Police also accepted help from Britain's Scotland Yard and the FBI.

Late last month, a suspected November 17 member, Savas Xiros, 40, was arrested after he was injured, allegedly when a bomb he was carrying went off prematurely. His capture led police to safe houses and the arrest of more than a dozen other suspects. Most of them talked, apparently because a new anti-terrorism law permits authorities to be lenient with suspects who cooperate.

Those Greeks who romanticized the group have been shocked to see that its ordinary members seem to be non-ideological criminals who simply took orders to kill or steal, and who were held together by family, friendship or shared guilt. Suspected members now in custody include a hospital telephone operator, an elementary school teacher, a painter of religious icons and a bus driver.

Among what is being called the second-generation "operational group" that carried out killings and robberies in the 1980s and 1990s, three suspects are brothers and several others are distantly related. Most of the rest are friends associated with these two family groupings. These relationships are seen as central to how the group maintained secrecy for so long, but the ties also promoted the chain of rapid arrests.

Giotopoulos, a translator of French, is the only suspect arrested so far to fit the expected profile of an aging leftist radical. He has denied any involvement in November 17 and charged that he is being framed.

"I have never seen any of my fellow accused before," Giotopoulos said this week in a statement to an examining judge. "I believe this is a frame-up by my fellow accused and that their depositions are the product of a deal between them and the police in order to secure better treatment for themselves."

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