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Rocks rain down on squatters in Athens

An account of being trapped with immigrants facing violent protesters.

A policeman holds a fire extinguisher in front of a graffiti during riots in Athens, May 9, 2009. Greek riot police fired teargas to disperse groups of stone-throwing protesters after they hurled fire bombs and set cars ablaze. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, May 9 — We were trapped on the grounds of an abandoned courthouse, the makeshift home of several hundred North African immigrants who had been squatting there for months. Outside, a row of policemen tried to stop a group of far-right-wing protesters who were trying to storm the building.

Suddenly, rocks rained in — from where it was hard to tell — and flares lit the sky overhead. The illegal immigrants, along with a handful of Greek supporters from left-wing and immigrant rights groups, fought back, ripping pieces of marble from the building and lobbing them over the metal fence that surrounded the courtyard.

Shouts rang out in Greek, Arabic and French as the immigrants tried to locate their attackers. They seemed to be in the streets outside and up high in the surrounding buildings. On my right, two Greek women tried to help a North African man whose head was bleeding heavily, and a puddle of crimson-red blood gathered on the paving stones. At least five immigrants were injured in the clashes, according to police.

“In Greece, protection for immigrants is non-existent,” said Fouad, a 33-year-old Moroccan who is squatting in the court building. “We are treated like criminals.”

Just over an hour earlier, a few blocks away, I’d watched a group of mainly young men with motorcycle helmets and Greek flags gather in Omonia Square in central Athens. The men, many members of the far-right group Chrisi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, were staging an anti-immigrant rally in the heart of enemy territory: Just a short distance away from Athens’ historic district, Omonia is one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods, traditionally the haunt of drug addicts but increasingly dominated by immigrants.

The protesters waved Greek flags and held up giant banners bearing slogans such as “Greece for Greeks” and “Foreigners mean crime,” as military marches blared from speakers. A few curious tourists looked on, while menacing men chased away any immigrants who unknowingly strayed too close.

Golden Dawn is a fringe group, with fascist undertones and little broad support in Greek society. But the showdown Saturday highlights the growing tension over the recent wave of new immigrants, many of them from Africa and Asia.

For most of the last century, Greeks themselves emigrated in search of a better life. Today, the small country of about 11 million is a key gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants, and the rapid change in neighborhoods like Omonia has unsettled many Greeks. Last year, Greek authorities arrested nearly 150,000 illegal immigrants entering the country, most of them in the Aegean Sea near the Turkish coast.