Greek shop owner arrested as a founding Nov. 17 leader

Man already in custody is identified as killer of CIA station chief in 1975

July 27, 2002|By David Holley | David Holley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ATHENS, Greece - Greek police arrested a suspected leader of the November 17 terrorist group yesterday and identified another key figure in custody as a gunman in the first of its more than 20 assassinations - that of the CIA station chief here in 1975.

Authorities are moving to crush one of the longest-lived groups to emerge from Europe's radical left three decades ago.

After making no progress for 27 years, Greek police have made stunning advances in recent weeks, arresting both suspected leaders and rank-and-file members. The latest is Nikos Papanastasiou, 50, arrested yesterday, who has been running a souvenir shop in central Athens and who police believe to be an important first-generation leader of the group.

Named after the date of a 1973 student uprising that was suppressed violently by the military junta then ruling Greece, November 17 burst into prominence with the killing of CIA agent Richard Welch.

Operating since then with seeming impunity, it was blamed for 22 additional killings as well as many bank robberies and the theft of weapons.

It last struck in June 2000, killing British defense attache Brig. Stephen Saunders.

In a predawn statement to police yesterday that was quickly leaked to the media, a suspect arrested earlier this week, Pavlos Serifis, 46, confessed to having been a lookout at the Welch killing and said that co-defendant Alexandros Giotopoulos was a gunman in that killing. Police, who arrested Giotopoulos, 58, earlier this month, described him as the leader of the group.

In the statement, Serifis also admitted being a lookout in the 1980 slayings of two Greek policemen and identified Giotopoulos as a gunman in that incident, as well.

Over the years, U.S. officials repeatedly complained that Greek authorities showed insufficient determination to track down the killers. During the group's early years, a significant portion of the Greek public - angered by American support for the 1967-1974 military dictatorship - appeared sympathetic to its ideology.

Public opinion began to swing more solidly against it in the mid-1980s when the group targeted prominent Greek businessmen.

Late last month, a suspected November 17 member, Savas Xiros, 40, was injured when a bomb he was carrying went off prematurely. His capture led to safe houses and the arrest of more than a dozen others.

Greeks who romanticized the group have been shocked to see that its members seem like ordinary criminals who simply took orders to kill or steal, and who were held together by family, friendship or shared guilt.

Many Greeks "expected the people arrested to come out with heroic statements, for example, `We delivered blows to the murderers of the people, the Americans,' or `We killed businessmen who were stealing money from the people,'" said Manolis Vasilakis, author of a book about Greek attitudes toward terrorism.

"The press had presented them as heroic and bold [and people imagined they] would kill a couple of policemen while police were trying to arrest them," he said. "Instead they saw people who are nothing but common murderers and bank robbers, [including] a brother who would turn his brother in. There is nothing heroic about them."

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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