More than 500 riot police in place

Updated: August 28, 2004, 9:26 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Police used tear gas Friday night to disperse more than 2,000 demonstrators who lit fires, smashed windows and beat up journalists while marching through downtown Athens to protest the weekend visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The demonstrators, who scuffled with police in front of the Parliament, fought running battles with riot squads trying to prevent them from reaching the U.S. Embassy. The embassy is not near any Olympic venues, but it is near the hotel being used by the International Olympic Committee and located on a major Olympic traffic lane.

The protesters shouted slogans against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Powell was expected to arrive Saturday to meet Premier Costas Caramanlis and attend the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics on Sunday night.

Earlier, hundreds of riot police with shields prevented the protesters from heading toward the embassy, and the two sides faced off in front of the Greek Parliament building.

The protesters marched in front of Athens University, beating drums, spraying graffiti on the walls and unfurling banners criticizing President Bush.

"Powell is the man who peddled Bush's lies on Iraq," said protest organizer, Yiannis Sifahakis. "He is a murderer and we don't want him here."

In Washington, deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said only that officials were aware of protest plans and that: "We are committed to visiting our Greek friends and sharing in this very important occasion."

Some of the demonstrators shouted slogans in English, taking advantage of the international TV crews covering the event. They called on passers-by to join them on a march to the U.S. Embassy.

Among those who joined in before the violence broke out was Andrea Murray, 22, who graduated from Duke University in North Carolina. She said she was looking for Athens' National Museum and instead found the demonstration.

"I found this and I thought, like wow! I am participating because I am American and I want Greeks to know that not all Americans are drones or idiots," Murray said.

A spectacular, moonlit Acropolis served as a backdrop to more than 500 riot police who were positioned in the central Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building and elsewhere in central Athens.

One Olympics volunteer in the trademark Athens 2004 polo shirt and shorts held up a sign that read: "Any volunteers against U.S. policy?"

Another demonstration by 200 people in Thessaloniki, a northern port and Greece's second-largest city, dispersed peacefully after protesters marched by the U.S. consulate to complain about Powell's visit.

Greece's top law enforcement official said the demonstrators had a right to protest but asked them not to cause any trouble.

"We organized games in an environment of security and discretion. Everyone recognizes this," Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said. "I want to believe that the events that have been planned will respect what with great effort all Greeks have accomplished."

Some Greeks worried that Powell's visit could destroy the festive atmosphere that has been present in Syntagma Square and the rest of the capital in recent days.

"I hope it won't spoil the party because the city is buzzing and everyone's pro-Olympics," said Marissa Daras, 26, a human resources specialist, as she walked through the square.

The right to demonstrate is cherished by Greeks, following harsh restrictions imposed during a 1967-74 military dictatorship. Protest groups have said they would oppose any police attempt to prevent them from marching on the U.S. Embassy.

Greece's small but influential Communist Party also said it was organizing a protest march on Saturday from central Athens to the embassy.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press