The attack against eight Hellenic Coast Guard officers in the middle of the capital on Thursday night by a group of about 50 masked individuals highlights the alarming and growing presence of organized armed gangs in the central Athens district of Exarchia, which has long served as a base for anti-establishment groups.
The officers were ambushed shortly after a drug-related raid on a house in Exarchia. Their assailants wore black overalls, hoods and helmets and were armed with clubs and knives, while some brandished pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Two were injured.
Authorities had earlier been tipped off by a Syrian national whom they had arrested earlier in the car deck of the Blue Star 1 ferry at Piraeus port. He was carrying 200 grams of cannabis at the time and they had gone to Exarchia to arrest his supplier.
Accompanied by a prosecutor, a team of eight officers from the Hellenic Coast Guard raided the house on Themistokleous and Eresou streets, where they remanded two women – a Greek Australian and a Syrian national – and confiscated 1.5 kilos of cannabis and a precision scale.
According to some witness reports, the attackers were under the impression that the house was being cleared of squatters.
The prosecutor was safely evacuated, but one of the officers suffered a knife injury to his thigh and the other was kicked and punched.
They were both transferred to the Athens Naval Hospital for treatment.
The attackers also stole the two officers’ service weapons and IDs and helped one of the women that had been detained to escape.
The coast guard said in a press release its officers “showed restraint” and did not use their weapons to avoid “an all-out clash with unpredictable results.”
However, the claim by Citizens’ Protection Minister Olga Gerovasili that the Greek Police (ELAS) had not been informed about the coast guard raid beforehand caused a rift between the two bodies.
“ELAS didn’t go there, it was not informed,” she reportedly told radio station News247 on Friday. However, her claim was contradicted by the coast guard statement, which said that police had been informed prior to the raid. A police source said later on Friday that the Exarchia police department had indeed been informed by the coast guard but only after the raid had begun.
The incident once again raised the issue of lawlessness and the transformation of Exarchia into a no-gone zone of sorts for police. Moreover, the armed gangs roaming the streets of Exarchia have been described by the Greek media as a militia.
In response, Gerovasili described the notion that there is no political will to fight lawlessness as “foolish.”
“We all know there are problems in Exarchia. The problems of crime and delinquency cannot be solved by pressing a magic button,” she said.
“But these issues should not be used to score political points whenever somebody decides to play the security card.”
Bemoaning “unprecedented decline,” opposition New Democracy was scathing in its criticism of the government, with its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis saying that “no one feels safe anywhere” in Greece while SYRIZA is in power.
“Not only does [the attack] prove once again that Exarchia is a no-go zone, it also confirms the relationship between the so-called anarchists and the dirty narcotics underworld,” he said.