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Greek police on Saturday cracked down on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, arresting its founding leader and four other members in parliament, following the murder of a leftist musician allegedly by a party activist.
The arrests came a day after Golden Dawn threatened to pull its lawmakers out of parliament, a move that could trigger a political crisis in the recession-hit country.
In dawn raids, Greek anti-terror police arrested Nikos Michaloliakos, who founded the party in 1980, along with party spokesman and MP Ilias Kassidiairis and three other lawmakers, police said.
The charges against them included belonging to a "criminal organisation", and for some of the suspects also assault and murder, according to a source in the justice ministry.
Golden Dawn faced a crackdown after a self-confessed neo-Nazi allegedly fatally stabbed popular hip-hop musician Pavlos Fyssas, 34, on September 18, a killing that sparked nationwide protests.
About a dozen party members, including two police officers, in the Athens area were also being questioned in the ongoing police operation which is expected to lead to more arrests, police and judicial sources said.
The police sweep came after Greece's supreme court, which has been charged with investigating the far-right group, issued arrest warrants for some 30 members.
Golden Dawn Saturday urged its followers to demonstrate against what it called an "illegal decision" and several hundred faithful had gathered in front of the police station where the suspects are being held.
Amid a sea of Greek flags, the protesters chanted the party's slogan, "Blood, honour, Golden Dawn", watched over by anti-riot police.
"Golden Dawn is still there, it will not retreat. You can't put its ideas in prison, we will fight to the end," Artemis Matheopoulos, a party MP, told AFP.
The party currently has 18 lawmakers in parliament and prior to the musician's murder was the third most popular political grouping in the country.
"This government is determined not to allow the descendants of the Nazis to poison our social life, to commit crimes, terrorise and undermine the foundations of the country that gave birth to democracy," Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras warned in a televised address a day after the killing.
Any trial would be 'fair'
Greece's justice minister Charalambos Athanassious said Saturday that if the arrested party members are prosecuted, "the trial will be fair... our democracy is strong."
Those arrested are expected to appear before a magistrate later Saturday or on Sunday.
Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos has threatened to pull the group's deputies out of parliament, a move that would prompt by-elections in 15 regions around the country.
"We will exhaust any means within our legal constitutional rights to defend our political honour," Michaloliakos told reporters late on Thursday.
"If the country enters a cycle of instability, it is those who demonise Golden Dawn who will be responsible, not (us)," he said.
By-elections could hurt Samaras's coalition government, which has a slim majority of 155 MPs in the 300-seat parliament, and could cast into doubt Greece's ability to fulfil its obligations to creditors on multi-billion-euro bailouts.
Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn's popularity has skyrocketed as it tapped into widespread anger over unpopular reforms in a country that is currently slogging through its sixth year of recession and where unemployment among the youth stands at a staggering 60 percent.
It went from 19,000 votes a few years ago to over 426,000 in June 2012 elections after pledging to "scour the country" clean of illegal immigrants.
The party, whose leader has denied the Holocaust, has sent black-clad squads to smash market stalls owned by migrants, held torch-lit rallies lambasting political opponents as "traitors" and "thieves", and organised food donations exclusively for ethnic Greeks.
It has also been blamed for a series of brutal attacks on migrants and political opponents, though it strenuously denies any responsibility and claims to be the victim of slander.
"We are rejoicing that the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement has forced the prime minister to make some arrests," said human rights group Keerfa, adding that the politicians have "for too long protected the action of neo-Nazis."