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British Defense Attache Killed In Athens; Terrorists Suspected

By T.R. Reid and R. Jeffrey Smith

Thursday morning, just days after a congressional commission warned that the Greek government has not done enough to combat terrorism, Britain’s defense attache in Greece was shot dead by two gunmen on motorcycles who attacked his car on a main Athens thoroughfare.

Greek police said the killing was almost certainly the work of the small left-wing terrorist band that calls itself November 17 -- the same group believed to have killed four U.S. government officials and 18 others in the past quarter-century.

The incident reignited concerns about outbreaks of terrorism when Athens hosts the Summer Olympics in 2004. The killing took place not far from the main stadium where the 2004 Games are to be held. The location, on Kifissias Avenue north of downtown, is almost precisely the same place where November 17 killed U.S. Navy Capt. George Tsantes and his driver in 1983.

Brigadier Stephen Saunders, 53, whose rank is equivalent to that of a one-star general in the U.S. Army, was driving an embassy car down the busy street around 8 a.m. Thursday when the motorcyclists roared up, shot him and raced away. Police said the .45-caliber bullets came from a gun used in previous November 17 attacks.

Until recently, the Greek government has paid little heed to foreign criticism of its record on terrorism. But after today’s attack, Foreign Minister George Papandreou said his government will be “most merciless” in pursuit of November 17. “We will not let the international image of our country be plagued,” Papandreou said.

The killing of the senior British diplomat came at a particularly embarrassing time for Papandreou. He had just returned to Athens from London, where he pleaded unsuccessfully for return of the ancient marble statues, now housed in the British Museum, that Britain’s Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon 200 years ago. “We are now in a position to provide full protection for our treasures,” Papandreou said.

Greece has repeatedly been criticized for failing to provide protection from the November 17 terrorists. In Washington on Monday, the National Commission on Terrorism reported to Congress that Greece “has been disturbingly passive in response to terrorist activities.”