Greek bombers target the tourists: Leonard Doyle reports from Athens on an escalating terror campaign against European and American interests

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AT THE stroke of midnight on Friday, some 36 hours before the polls opened for the European elections, a bomb exploded outside the lobby of the Hotel Plaka in the heart of Athens' tourist district, sending terrified guests streaming into the street in fear of their lives.

Three other bombs rocked Athens that night. But the bomb which sent glass and twisted metal flying through the air in an area overlooked by the floodlit Acropolis, and which is generally thronged by tourists at that hour of night, was the most worrisome. It signalled escalation in a slowly-building campaign against Western European and US interests in Greece.

Although the bomb was small and caused little damage, it was the first time in 19 years of spasmodic domestic Greek terrorism that Western tourists found themselves bombed in central Athens.

While guests streamed out of the hotel, the explosions caused barely a ripple of interest elsewhere in the city. A short distance away, in Abissinia Square, a Gypsy singer continued to entertain diners at one of the city's chic outdoor restaurants despite the sound of the explosions followed by the wailing of police sirens.

A group calling itself the Anti-State Struggle claimed responsibility for the bombs. The organisation is one of many believed to be directed either by 17 November or Ellas, Greece's two main terrorist groups.

So concerned are Western countries about the latest wave of attacks that the British, French, German, Dutch and US ambassadors have made vigorous protests to Athens about the dismal record of the Greek police in bringing terrorists to book.

In March, the 17 November group was behind an attempt to fire anti-tank rockets at HMS Ark Royal, but the attempt failed when a rainstorm made a remote-control firing device inoperable. The Ark Royal was apparently targeted because it is on duty in the Adriatic providing air-power to protect UN forces in Bosnia. Terrorists have also attacked the UN's offices in Athens, protesting at the support being given to Bosnian Muslims at the expense of Greece's Orthodox Christian regional ally, Serbia.

Many security experts say 17 November is the world's most successful terrorist group. The organisation has never been penetrated by the authorities or had a member arrested in its 19 years of existence, during which it has murdered 17 people, knee- capped many others and carried out numerous bombings and rocket attacks.

So successful is the organisation at evading detection that many claim it has links with senior figures in Pasok, the Socialist Party which rules Greece and which has a not dissimilar anti-Western ideology, despite the country's membership of the EU and Nato.

Named for the massacre of 20 students at Athens Polytechnic by the military junta on 17 November 1973, the group's attacks are generally in tune with whatever is upsetting Greek public opinion at the time.

Over the last few months a number of home-grown left- wing organisations have turned their attention from targets associated with the previous right-wing New Democracy government to European and American interests.

The latest phase in the campaign began in March, when French and German cultural institutes were bombed.

Bombings of diplomats' cars and United Nations property followed. While lives have yet to be lost in any of this year's bombings, European diplomats here say it is only a matter of time before someone is killed.

With the switch to their new targets, the terrorist groups have managed to retain public sympathy. One in every 15 Greeks say they would not hand a member of 17 November over to the authorities. Other polls confirm an anti-European trend and indicate that 55 per cent of Greeks, as opposed to 45 per cent seven years ago, believe their country should reinforce its 'Greek Orthodox' identity over its European identity.