Greece mulls militants who spit defiance

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

Image caption,
Gerasimos Tsakalos, centre, has refused to co-operate with authorities

Wearing white bulletproof vests, the two young bearded men manhandled into Athens' main court spat and snarled at reporters and photographers in a calculated pique of defiance.

When quizzed by prosecutors, they refused to give their names or answer questions, claiming they were political prisoners.

But as they emerged from the court in the grip of masked, muscular, machine gun-carrying anti-terrorist police, the two suspects, Gerasimos Tsakalos, 24, and Panagiotis Argyros, 22, looked small and not particularly terrifying.

Perhaps bravado was better than quivering at the prospect of 25 years in jail for their alleged part in sending booby-trapped parcel bombs to President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy as well as assorted embassies and EU institutions.

Terrorism experts are convinced that the two belong to a left-wing organisation called the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire.

The group has been active since the Greek riots of December 2008, ignited by the fatal shooting of schoolboy Alexis Grigoropoulos by a policeman.

So just how dangerous are they?

Brady Kiesling, a former US diplomat in Athens and author of a book about November 17, Greece's most deadly guerrillas, believes they are politically irrelevant.

"Their message is smash the system," he says. "Basically, they are soft-hearted suburban kids who aren't really going to hurt anyone in the process, if they can help it."

Mr Kiesling dismissed their cluster of booby traps as "firecrackers".

But while the group may have caused little more than inconvenience and raised blood pressure across Europe, they have highlighted serious flaws in the air freight system by demonstrating how easy it is to smuggle explosive materials into the cargo holds of aircraft.

Closing loopholes

An emergency meeting of bomb experts is to be held in Brussels on Friday to determine what new measures must be implemented to counter the threat.

Mrs Merkel, in particular, is keen for loopholes to be closed.

Greek public order minister Christos Papoutsis blamed the security lapse at Athens airport on courier companies.

"The companies themselves, which also use their own aircraft, are responsible for controls," he said.

Greek foreign minister Dimitris Droutsas insisted that the Greek guerrillas had no connections with Islamic terrorism.

But Dr Athanasios Drougos, who lectures Greek officer cadets on intelligence and terrorism, believes the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire has dangerous potential.

"I think they are approaching a convergence, let's say a marriage of convenience between anarchist and other left-wing groups in our society, with some Islamic groups," he said.

"They don't have the same agenda but they have the same goals, which is to create more problems in Greek society."

In today's Kathimerini newspaper, Alexi Papachelas, a leading Athenian social commentator, warned against voices dismissing the bombers as insignificant.

"A part of the (hard) left has, unfortunately, raised its children to believe that anything is allowed when done in protest, even by extension, violence."

He said Greece's atmosphere of youth unemployment and corruption provided a "fertile ground for terrorism and violence".

"It is pure luck that we didn't mourn any victims," he wrote.

"But if we don't start taking the phenomenon seriously and stop pretending that it is all under control, it will grow and multiply.

"It is very easy for this country, with all the problems it faces, to still tumble into the abyss."

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