Greek authorities have halted international postal deliveries for 48 hours in the wake of a militant bombing campaign.
At least 11 mail bombs were sent to embassies in Athens yesterday, while devices were also sent to the offices of French PM Nicolas Sarkozy and his German counterpart Angela Merkel.
Another addressed to Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was discovered on a plane forced into an emergency landing at Bologna last night.
The airport was closed for several hours after the TNT cargo craft was asked to deviate when company officials back in Greece realised there was a suspect package aboard.
A ‘little flame sparked’ when bomb experts opened the parcel.
Greek militant groups are suspected of mounting the unprecedented two-day wave of attacks. If that is confirmed, it would mark a dramatic escalation for organisations that have never before attempted to strike targets abroad.
Packages were also directed to the embassies of Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The attacks began Monday when a mail bomb addressed to the Mexican embassy exploded at a delivery service in central Athens, lightly wounding one worker.
Police arrested two men in their twenties shortly after the blast. They were allegedly carrying mail bombs addressed to Sarkozy and the Belgian Embassy, along with handguns and bullets in waist pouches.
The two – Panagiotis Argyros, 22 and Gerasimos Tsakalos, 24, were charged with terrorism-related offenses. Both refused to cooperate with authorities, declining to give their names and claiming to be political prisoners.
Police say Argyros was already wanted for alleged membership in a radical group called Conspiracy Nuclei of Fire, which has carried out crude arson and small bomb attacks in the past.
The German chancellory was evacuated yesterday afternoon after one suspect package arrived at Angela Merkel’s office. It was unclear whether the bomb sent to Germany was delivered by land or air.
‘If they have been flown, then it rather begs the question whether European freight air security is up to muster at all,’ said UK-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates.
But transportation industry officials also said there are few if any security checks on packages transported within the European Union by road or rail.
‘Once they’re in Europe, the goods are free to move around,’ said Robert Windsor, manager of trade services at the British International Freight Association.
UPS, which transports mail in Europe both by ground and air, said it was aware of reports it had delivered the package to Germany but could not confirm them.
‘We’re working closely with authorities to investigate,’ UPS spokesman Norman Black said by e-mail.
Sarkozy added: ‘The threat is very serious. We are extremely vigilant and I am following it very closely.
Bombs addressed to embassies and state leaders were not likely to reach their intended targets, said Andrew Silke, Director Terrorism Studies at the University of East London. But the bombers probably achieved their aim by generating worldwide publicity.
‘If they had just left the devices on the streets of Athens it wouldn’t have got nearly anything like the attention it got internationally,’ Silke said. ‘This happening so close to the Yemeni attempt to get bombs into the United States means it probably has more of a resonance that it would otherwise.’
Mail bombs are also easy to put together, he noted.
‘It’s a very simple way to cause an awful lot of disruption,’ Silke said. ‘The devices are usually very simple to make. The ingredients needed to make them are cheap.’
He added: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if this would lead to a significant increase in this type of attacks in the coming months.’
No connection has been made to the mail bombs from Yemen that were found on aircraft in Britain and Dubai, and Greek authorities are focusing on domestic groups.
Radical groups have long been active in Greece. After a few years of relative quiet, such groups stepped up attacks following riots that hit Greek cities in December 2008, sparked by the deadly police shooting of a teenager in Athens.
Four people have been killed in bombings or shooting attacks since 2009.
Much of the unrest harks back to the sharp postwar divide between right and left, which led to a civil war and a seven-year military dictatorship.
Although a student uprising succeeded in ending military rule in 1974, tensions remain between Greece’s security establishment and a phalanx of deeply entrenched leftist groups that often protest against globalization and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The government condemned the attacks, vowing to catch the culprits.
‘We stand firm, unyielding against anyone who tries, in vain, with terrorist actions to disrupt social peace and harm our country’s image internationally during a particularly difficult time,’ Prime Minister George Papandreou said.
The country is in the midst of a debt crisis, and only avoided bankruptcy in May after securing billions of euros in emergency loans from its European partners – led by Germany – and the International Monetary Fund. In exchange, the government made painful spending cuts, slashing pensions and salaries and hiking taxes.
The cuts have led to a backlash of anger from workers who have seen their income cut and spending power curtailed.
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