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Greece braces for violence on uprising anniversary

Experts worry that the traditional day of Athens riots will see worse violence as extremism has risen in the past year.

Athens Polytechnic students take part in a march commemorating a 1973 student uprising against the then military junta as they carry a bloodstained Greek flag from the revolt in central Athens, Nov. 17, 2008. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — Nov. 17 is an important date for Greeks, especially for the left. It is a day of mourning, in commemoration of the Athens Polytechnic uprising in 1973 when the Greek military junta stormed a Greek university and killed an unknown number of students protesting the regime.

The day also gave its name to the country's longest running, most deadly terrorist group. The group, which was broken by Greek police in 2002, killed at least 23 people over a period of more than 27 years.

But as Greece marks the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising this year, the country is bracing for a new wave of anti-authoritarian violence.

Over the past year, there has been a surge in anarchist and anti-authoritarian attacks in Greece, primarily against government and political targets. The escalation in violence was sparked by the killing last December of a 16- year-old boy by police in a neighborhood known as a stronghold of extreme left-wing groups.

The shooting set off weeks of riots and gave new life to extremist groups. Analysts say the riots tapped into simmering youth discontent in Greece — especially over rising unemployment and corruption — and helped win extreme groups new recruits.

"There has been an increase in incidence, there has been an escalation," said Mary Bossis, a professor at the University of Piraeus who studies Greek terrorism. "And it will only get worse."
Greece has a long tradition of far-left political violence and a high public tolerance for such acts, as long as they stay within certain limits.

Large protest marches, including the annual one to the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 17, usually end with clashes between masked "anarchists," armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, and police. And small, late-night bomb attacks against multinational companies or government offices are frequent.

But another legacy of the events of the Nov. 17 Polytechnic uprising is that the Greek public holds the police and other law enforcement in low regard. And police are barred from entering university or school campuses, which allows extremist groups to use them as bases.

In recent years, since the breakup of 17 November, political violence has been largely symbolic, intended to cause damage rather than hurt or kill. Often, warning calls about bombs, for example, would be made in advance.

"Youth violence that in other societies would express itself as football [soccer] violence, here is expressed as political violence," said Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat who is writing a book about 17 November.

But over the past year there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of attacks — and a number of incidents have claimed casualties.