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Rally in Athens Turns Violent

About 2,000 marchers clash with police during an anti-U.S. protest. Secretary of State Powell postpones a visit, citing 'pressing business.'

August 28, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Greek authorities have managed to keep a lid on political protests for most of the Olympic Games, but on Friday night, anti-U.S. demonstrators rallied against a planned visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and fought running battles with riot police.

This morning, the U.S. Embassy here said Powell was postponing his trip until after the Olympics because of "pressing business in Washington."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in Washington, in a statement announcing the cancellation, said Powell spoke with the Greek foreign minister Friday night and proposed visiting Greece in October.

Earlier Friday, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 protesters who had marched through downtown Athens, past luxury hotels housing Olympic VIPs, until they were blocked by a cordon of helmeted officers outside Parliament. The protesters had hoped to reach the U.S. Embassy, less than a mile away on Queen Sofia Avenue, a six-lane street leading to major Olympic venues.

Two demonstrators and a journalist were injured and hospitalized, police said. Scores more people ran for cover as pepper spray engulfed the crowd, and a small band of protesters rampaged down a street, hurling concrete chunks into bank windows, torching trash bins and ripping down gigantic posters of Olympic athletes.

"Out! Out! Colin Powell has got to go!" the protesters chanted.

Most of the demonstrators were from leftist splinter groups and a coalition of antiwar activists mobilized when the U.S. invaded Iraq last year, a military action that Greeks had opposed by an overwhelming majority. No arrests were reported.

Anti-American sentiment has a long history in Greece, fueled in part by U.S. complicity in the 1967 coup that put a military junta in charge of the country until civilian rule was restored seven years later. When President Clinton came to Greece in 1999, he was greeted by some of the most violent protests awaiting a visiting leader in decades.

Powell was scheduled to arrive in Athens today and attend the closing ceremony of the 2004 Summer Games on Sunday.

Demonstrators said they opposed Powell's presence here because he represented a government that occupied Iraq and backed Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

"He is persona non grata," said Petros Constantinou, an organizer of the protest. "We cannot accept the presence of someone who bombs Najaf and ignores the tradition of an Olympic truce," he said, referring to the Iraqi city where U.S. troops have fought Shiite Muslim militants this month.

Katarina Sergides, a 23-year-old archeology student, said, "We are here against the Olympics and against Powell, but mostly against Powell."

A U.S. official involved with security in Athens greeted the cancellation with relief today.

"I didn't see any danger in him coming here, but it does eliminate the potential for problems," the official said.

Recent antiwar rallies in Greece have drawn tens of thousands of people. Still, this was the first significant show of political protest since the security-heavy Olympics began Aug. 13. The Greek establishment was adamantly opposed to allowing the demonstration to proceed, saying it would tarnish the country's image.

The demonstrators gathered outside a university building under blaring music, then marched under huge banners declaring opposition to the Iraq war and branding President Bush a "killer." They paraded peacefully down boulevards until reaching Athens' main Syntagma Square, where large contingents of police awaited them under a nearly full moon, with the illuminated Acropolis in the background.

A noisy hourlong standoff erupted into scuffles when protesters hurled bottles at the police, who fired stun grenades before releasing tear gas.

At one point, members of a Brazilian sports team, in bright yellow T-shirts, found themselves among the protesters before scurrying away. Well-heeled tourists crossed through the crowd, accelerating their pace when they realized what was happening.

But some members of the Olympic milieu joined the protest. Several Olympic volunteers marched under a banner calling for "volunteers" against U.S. policy and declaring they represented the "true" Olympic spirit.

California resident Claude Gamma, who works for an Olympic sponsor, decided to forgo her plan to attend an athletic event when she stumbled upon the crowd.

"We thought this was more important," said Gamma, who was accompanied by friend Laurie Turpin of Chicago.

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