Greek police catch top terrorist suspect

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The Independent Online
GREEK police say they have struck a heavy blow against terrorism by arresting George Balafas, the country's most wanted underground suspect for seven years. The police seized Mr Balafas, 36, and four other people in a raid last week on a central Athens apartment.

He was later charged with the 1985 murder of a state prosecutor, and the killings of at least five policemen. He faces prison for life if convicted. The charges stem from attacks linked to a group called 'The Anti-State Struggle', of which Mr Balafas is believed to be a founder. But investigators also suspect he is a member of 17 November, Greece's most deadly terrorist group.

Since 1975, when it burst on to the scene by assassinating Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, 17 November has killed almost 20 people, including US diplomats and soldiers, Greek industrialists, prosecutors, publishers and policemen, and the Turkish embassy's deputy press attache.

The police have linked Mr Balafas to the Welch murder, saying his fingerprints were found on the keys of a car used in that killing. They also suspect him of bomb attacks on banks, and the robbery of an armoured truck in 1985, in which two guards were killed. But after his arrest, Mr Balafas said: 'I am not a member of 17 November or of the Anti-State Struggle. During these years I have not been hiding from the police. I was just very careful in my movements.'

Mr Balafas was the second alleged 17 November terrorist arrested this year. Last September the police picked up Epaminondas Skiftoulis, 35, the first suspected member of the group to be arrested since its emergence 17 years ago. The arrests reflect a crackdown on terrorism launched by the Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, after his election in April 1990. The Prime Minister's son-in-law was shot dead outside his office in 1989.

Mr Mitsotakis's campaign has prompted a string of arrests and trials, as well as the expulsion of scores of Palestinians, including six Palestine Liberation Organisation members accredited as diplomats. However, 17 November has remained active.

A spectacular rocket attack last year, launched from a statue of the goddess Athene at Athens University, wrecked the offices of American Express. Last July, 17 November targeted the Finance Minister, Ioannis Palaiokrassas, in another rocket attack. The explosion killed an innocent bystander.

The 17 November group takes its name from the day in 1973 when the military junta of that time sent tanks to crush a student occupation of Athens Polytechnic. It used to specialise in gun attacks, including shooting in the leg at close range, but it has turned over the years to remote-controlled bombings and rocket attacks.

Its lengthy ideological statements have a strong Marxist influence, but are also populist in tone, denouncing corruption in political parties, police and judiciary. The group claims to fight for the poor and oppressed, and is violently anti-Turkish and anti-American.

Investigators believe 17 November has no more than six to 12 members, most of whom were left-wing students who met during the 1967-74 military dictatorship. But the group appears to have recruited several new members over the last five years. It has generally avoided contact with foreign terrorist groups, making it exceptionally difficult for the police to penetrate.

Even the arrest of Mr Balafas may not bring a swift halt to terrorism in Greece. An hour after he was seized, a rocket attack bearing the hallmarks of 17 November destroyed a tax office in the Athens suburb of Nea Philadelphia.