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Greeks protest clinton { November 20 1999 }


Greeks Protest Clinton Visit

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 1999; Page A1

ATHENS, Nov. 19 As President Clinton drove into Athens tonight along heavily guarded streets swept clear of traffic and people, several thousand Greek demonstrators in the city center hurled stones and gasoline bombs at banks and police to protest his visit and dramatize their objections to U.S. actions in Kosovo and elsewhere.

The protests, which injured about 15 people and led to more than a dozen arrests, constituted the most tumultuous foreign reception of Clinton's presidency. But Clinton, who was greeted at the airport by a small, cheering crowd, never came near or saw the uproar directed against him, and he later attended a dinner held in his honor at the presidential palace without incident.

The most violent of the demonstrators, who ran riot through a mile-long government and business district, threw paving stones and firebombs at police and store windows. The police responded with riot shields, fire trucks and tear gas. Banks opposite the National Library were the hardest hit. Windows were smashed out including several second-story windows at American Express and smoldering chairs, set afire by gasoline bombs, were carried outside.

Greek and U.S. officials had feared such a reception here, where many people strongly objected to the U.S.-led bombing of nearby Yugoslavia this spring in the conflict over Kosovo. After large anti-American demonstrations took place in Athens this month, the White House and Greek government decided to shorten and postpone Clinton's visit, which originally had been scheduled for two days last week.

Clinton's visit will last less than 24 hours, following a five-day, virtually protest-free trip to Greece's traditional rival, Turkey a nation that tolerates less open dissent than does Greece. Shortly before departing Istanbul for Athens today, Clinton told reporters, "Greece is the world's oldest democracy. If people want to protest, they ought to have a chance to do it."

The president, who has said Greece and all other nations should allow robust public comment, put the best face on his visit, telling the airport welcoming party: "I have come here as a 'phili mou,' a friend of Greece. And I look forward to experiencing that wonderful quality of Greek hospitality known to all the world as 'philoxenia.'"

At that moment, Greek television used a split screen to simultaneously broadcast Clinton's airport speech and live footage of marauding protesters burning trash and an American flag as police sprayed them with tear gas.

While the acrid smell of the gas and smoke hung over much of downtown, Clinton alluded to the protests at the state dinner. "As in all friendships, we have not always agreed, but we have never broken ranks," he said. "If some engage us in passionate debate, it is well to remember how hard both our countries have fought for the right to do just that."

Greece, a member of NATO and the European Union, has long been a U.S. ally. But many Greek citizens opposed NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. Not only is Yugoslavia in the neighborhood, but most Greeks and most Serbs are Orthodox Christians..

Moreover, many Greeks deeply resent the United States for its role during a decade of military dictatorship here after a military coup d'etat in 1967. And communists remain a small but vital political force in Greece, creating a stronger anti-American base than in most European nations.

The government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis raised numerous objections to the allied bombing of Yugoslavia. But Greece never broke ranks with NATO and allowed U.S. troops to use its country as a staging ground despite polls showing strong opposition to the policy. One reason for Clinton's visit is to thank the Greek government for its loyalty.

But the visit has infuriated many Greeks, including those who marched downtown tonight.

"What has enraged the Greek people is the behavior of the NATO troops," said Petridis, a 40-year-old civil engineer who declined to give his last name, as fire crews extinguished stacks of trash set afire along broad Panepistimiou Avenue near Omonia Square.

He said Clinton's visit "symbolizes for us the U.S. domination of Greece, from the '70s to today." He said it was particularly galling that Greek officials had agreed to cordon off large sections of Athens, "throwing out people, searching even the building of the Parliament. This is against the dignity of the Greek people."

A man named Andreas, 58, who stood nearby wiping his eyes and nose because of the lingering tear gas, nodded in agreement. "This is an insult for the Greek people," he said.

Anti-American groups, including the Greek Communist Party and self-proclaimed anarchists, had criticized government plans to keep all protesters far from Clinton during his visit. Simitis's administration deployed about 7,000 police to keep demonstrators away from Clinton and the U.S. Embassy, but allowed them to assemble near the parliament building.

From there, several thousand demonstrators began moving down Panepistimiou Avenue at about the time Air Force One was landing at the Athens airport at sunset. At some point, protesters began throwing firebombs and rocks and police began firing tear gas.

"It looks big on a camera, but this is a city of 4 million people," said Alex Rondos, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Only a few thousand marched tonight, he said, and the violence was caused by "about a hundred or so," whom he called "hardy perennials."

Rondos said most Greeks are delighted by Clinton's visit, the first by a U.S. president since George Bush in 1991.

"It is of enormous significance that the American president has come to Greece," Rondos said, noting that the Simitis government will discuss Cyprus, European security and other issues with the Americans. "Only good can come from a visit like this."

Before coming to Athens, Clinton and about 50 other world leaders wrapped up the summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul, where they revised a treaty limiting conventional arms in Europe. OSCE members also signed a revised charter that calls for international intervention if one nation's actions threaten regional stability the argument NATO made against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

2000 The Washington Post Company

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