Thousands of antiwar demonstrators clashed with Greek riot police in the main tourist district of Athens on Friday after a rally to protest U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's upcoming visit to the Olympics degenerated into a rock-throwing melee.
Greek security forces pepper-sprayed the crowd and launched at least one tear gas canister after confronting the protesters next to the Parliament building in Syntagma Square. The police acted after some demonstrators hurled bottles and rocks and were blocked from reaching the U.S. Embassy, their intended destination about a half-mile away.
In the ensuing ruckus, marchers set fire to trash cans and smashed some storefront windows before dispersing about an hour later. In spite of the violence, no serious injuries were reported.
The contingent of about 500 police refrained from making mass arrests and spent most of its energy trying to direct the protesters away from nearby crowds of tourists, many of whom watched from a safe distance. Some journalists were not so lucky; at least three cameramen and reporters were physically assaulted by demonstrators.
Political protests are a common occurrence in Greece, and it is not unusual for them to turn violent. There is also a long history of anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiment among demonstrators here, although the Greek government and Olympics organizers had managed to keep the Games free of such distractions until Friday night.
The march was prompted by news that Powell will visit Athens on Sunday to attend the Closing Ceremonies and meet with Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. An estimated 5,000 people joined in the demonstration, including labor unions, anarchists, Marxists and others opposed to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.
"Colin Powell -- Out! Out!" the protesters shouted in English as they carried hundreds of placards indicating their dissatisfaction with a variety of things, from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the Olympics themselves. "War Games, Olympic Games, Game Over," read one sign.
Maria Styllou, a teacher at a local technical college, called Powell "a murderer" and said the vast majority of Greeks are vehemently against the U.S. presence in Iraq. In an interview beforehand, she predicted that the demonstration would turn ugly and that the police would response with gas, adding that such outcomes are routine in Athens.
"That's what they're going to do," she said. "We push, and they tear-gas."
Nick Skiadas, 18, a recent high school graduate from Athens, said many Greeks were fed up with the Olympics and upset that the government has devoted so much money to the Games. "You can buy so many cameras and so many police officers, but we need the money for schools and hospitals," he said.
Greece has spent $1.5 billion on security for the Olympics and has deployed about 70,000 police officers, soldiers and other forces, primarily to deter a terrorist attack. Prior to the march, Greek government officials said they would permit the demonstration to take place but declared the U.S. Embassy off-limits, as well as the nearby Hilton Hotel where many members of the International Olympic Committee are staying.
"We have organized the Games in a secure environment, whereby security measures have been absolutely discreet and personal rights have been fully respected," George Voulgarakis, the Greek minister for public order, told reporters. "I want to believe that the protests planned for today and tomorrow will take place by fully respecting what the Greek people have achieved after so much effort."
The Greek Communist Party said it was planning another march on Saturday along a similar route.