When members of the urban guerrilla group Revolutionary Struggle fired Kalashnikov assault rifles at a riot police squad on duty outside the Ministry of Culture on Bouboulinas Street, central Athens, in the early hours of January 5, 2009, the officers thought they were being attacked with petrol bombs by self-styled anarchists from nearby Exarchia.
“We put on our helmets, picked up our shields and ran out of the riot van. It was only when we saw [fellow officer] Diamantis Matzounis bleeding on the ground that we realized what was going on and ran for cover,” one of the officers on duty that night, who wished to remain unnamed, told Kathimerini recently.
The confusion was echoed in the early hours of Sunday, May 25, when gunmen opened fire on the headquarters of the PASOK party on Harilaou Trikoupi Street, also in Exarchia.
“We heard the noise and thought it was firecrackers. That’s what we reported to headquarters. No one realized that it was gunfire from a Kalashnikov,” another officer who serves with the riot police said.
Police unionists claim that riot officers are equipped and trained to deal with raids against potential targets like the PASOK offices, which are quite a common occurrence in parts of central Athens, but not with an attack using high-powered weapons, as was the case on May 25. They also reveal that on the same night anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death last September in the Piraeus suburb of Keratsini by a self-confessed member of ultranationalist party Golden Dawn, a squad of riot police was attacked in central Athens as it was leaving the PASOK headquarters post. According to the sources, unknown assailants poured gasoline onto the road at the corner of Harilaou Trikoupi and Arachovis streets and set it alight with Molotov cocktails after trapping the riot van full of officers over the spot by pushing metal garbage cans in front of and behind the vehicle.
Numerous memos regarding this and similar incidents have been sent to regional and national police headquarters, while the issue has been the subject of meetings between representatives of the riot police and the chief of security at PASOK’s offices. In one memo to the directorate responsible for the riot police, the Union of Police Employees stressed the need for measures to be taken so that officers’ safety is not endangered when they are on regular guard duty.
Sources told Kathimerini that the PASOK offices are guarded by a regular squad, as well as an additional 25 officers who have been transferred to that particular security detail. During the May 25 attack, an additional four security police officers were on duty there, though they failed to notice that anything was amiss at the time of the shooting. The attack took place at 5.30 a.m., just an hour-and-a-half before Greek election centers opened for the polls, though police headquarters and the counterterrorism unit were not informed of the incident until 1 p.m., seven-plus hours later. The gunmen also succeeded in getting close to PASOK’s offices from Mavromichali Street and fleeing the scene after firing two shots without being noticed even though a study was recently carried out stressing the security gaps in and around the building.
According to a high-ranking Greek police official, the security plan for the PASOK offices foresees a regular foot patrol by plain-clothes policemen and surveillance of the building from the adjacent rooftops. These measures have not been implemented, however, because officers fear for their safety as attacks on police, particularly in Exarchia, are so frequent.
It is worth noting that the May 25 attack on PASOK’s headquarters was carried out from a parking lot on Mavromichali Street and that the officers on duty in front of the offices do not have a view of this spot.