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Violence greets clinton visit { November 20 1999 }

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Saturday, 20 November, 1999, 01:40 GMT
Violence greets Clinton visit

Thousands of left-wing protesters chanting anti-American slogans have clashed with police and set dozens of shops ablaze at the start of a delayed state visit by US President Bill Clinton to Athens.

Riot police used teargas against thousands of left-wing protesters who had gathered in the central Syndagma Square outside the parliament in Athens, after a small group threatened to storm the building.

As the crowd fled through surrounding streets, fires were started in rubbish bins and some shop windows smashed.

At least three people were reported to have blood on their heads.

The trouble, which the authorities blamed on anarchists, broke out almost exactly as Mr Clinton touched down at Athens airport.

His visit was originally scheduled for last weekend, but was delayed and shortened from three days to one following a series of anti-American protests.

Greek dislike of the US is based partly on Washington's perceived backing of Greece's traditional enemy Turkey. It was fuelled more recently by Nato's offensive against Yugoslavia.

The Greek Public Order Ministry has staged an unprecedented security operation to protect Mr Clinton, deploying some 7,000 police, backed by 400 FBI agents, across the city.

It has closed 12 miles of central Athens' usually-congested streets for the entire day, with bus routes altered for two days.

It banned protesters from rallying near the airport, anywhere along the seaside boulevard linking the airport to central Athens, and a triangular area housing the US embassy and other official buildings.

The security arrangements seemed to anger protesters further.

The Greek Communist Party and two other small left-wing opposition parties urged demonstrators to test police barriers and march to the US Embassy.

Rallies were also planned in other Greek cities, and more than 2,000 protesters burned American flags outside the US Consulate on the northern port of Thessaloniki.

Clinton 'a friend'

Speaking as he disembarked form Air Force One, Mr Clinton said he came to Greece as a "friend" of the country.

"I have come here as a 'philhellene' - a friend of Greece - and I look forward to experiencing that wonderful quality of Greek hospitality known to all the world," he said.

"We look to ancient Greece for inspiration, but we look to modern Greece for leadership and partnership."

Earlier, Mr Clinton had said people should be able to show their feelings.

"Greece is the world's oldest democracy. If people want to protest, they ought to have a chance to do it," he said at a press conference in Turkey.

He also reminded journalists that he had been trying to generate a peace initiative between Greece and Turkey, over the divided island of Cyprus.

"The Greek people and the government should be quite encouraged by this new Cyprus initiative, and by the fact that I found a receptive ear [in Turkey] on three separate occasions when I spoke ... about the necessity of the Turkish people and the Greeks being reconciled," he said.

Because of his new programme, President Clinton's experience of Athens will largely be confined to a high-rise hotel near the airport.

He, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea were due to meet Greek leaders behind a cordon of riot police, before travelling on to Florence.

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Violence greets clinton visit { November 20 1999 }
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