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Elusive Greek Terror Group Ringleader, 3 Others Captured - 2002-07-18

Greek police said they have captured a ringleader and three members of a shadowy terrorist organization that has been linked to 23 killings since 1975. Police have said two of the men have confessed to taking part in the assassinations of U.S. and British officials.

It is the first major breakthrough Greek police have had since the November 17 terrorist group was set up 27 years ago.

The organization takes its name from the date of a 1973 student uprising against a military junta that governed the country at the time. It first made headlines in 1975 when it claimed responsibility for the assassination of the CIA station chief in Athens.

Since then, November 17 has killed U.S., British, and Turkish diplomats as well as Greek businessmen and politicians. It has also carried out bombing and rocket attacks and bank robberies.

At a news conference Thursday in Athens, Greek police chief Fotis Nassiakos said one of the captured men, Vassilis Xiros, confessed to taking part in the shooting death of Brigadier Stephen Saunders, Britain's defense attaché in Greece, in June 2000. Brigadier Saunders was the last man to be assassinated by the group.

Mr. Nassiakos said Vassilis Xiros' brother, Christodoulos, acknowledged taking part in nine attacks between 1984 and 1992. Among his victims were Captain William Nordeen, the U.S. naval attaché, in 1988, and an American air force sergeant, Ronald Stewart, in 1991.

He said a third man confessed to taking part in several bombing attacks and robberies.

Police say a man they arrested Wednesday on the island of Lipsi, in the Aegean Sea, is one of the masterminds of November 17. He has been identified as Alexandros Giotopoulos, a French-born economics professor in his late 50s whose father was a leading Greek follower of Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Greek police have been criticized over the years for failing to make any arrests despite November 17's wave of terrorist attacks. But, as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in the year 2004, diplomats say Greece appears to be making an effort to crush the organization.

The crackdown began last month when Savos Xiros, a brother of the two men who confessed to carrying out assassinations, was injured in a failed bomb attack in the port of Piraeus. Police later discovered two weapons caches belonging to the group. Police also found a gun that was used by November 17 in at least seven murders since 1980, including the assassination of Brigadier Saunders.