Greek police arrest another mastermind of terror group

Saturday, July 27, 2002

ATHENS, Greece -- Greek police struck again Friday at the crippled November 17 terrorist group and plucked another prized suspect: an unassuming shopkeeper accused of helping found Europe's most elusive urban guerrilla band.

The arrest of 50-year-old Nikos Papanastasiou apparently topples another pillar in a group that completely outwitted authorities during a 27-year reign of bombings, robberies and murder.

It also adds to the surprisingly common face emerging from an organization that carried a reputation for fanatical secrecy and ruthless precision. Papanastasiou had run a souvenir shop in central Athens. Another alleged November 17 co-founder and mastermind, 58-year-old Alexandros Giotopoulos, says he worked translating French texts.

Other suspected members caught in a rapid-fire series of raids in the past weeks include a bus driver, religious icon painter and elementary school teacher.

On Friday, a hospital telephone operator, Pavlos Serifis, accused of being November 17's second-in-command told police that Giotopoulos was the gunman who killed CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975 -- the slaying that first brought attention to the group.

Serifis, 46, admitted being a lookout in the Welch attack, police said. The extent of Papanastasiou's involvement in the killing was not immediately clear. A 20-year statute of limitations means no one can be directly charged with slayings before 1982.

Police believe Papanastasiou and Giotopoulos helped forge the ultra-left mentality of November 17 during the dying gasps of the 1967-74 military junta in Greece. The group takes it name from the day in 1973 when tanks crushed student-led protests.

Group killed 23 people

After the Welch slaying, November 17 went on to claim 22 more victims, including three other Americans. It last struck in June 2000 with the killing of British defense attache Brig. Stephen Saunders.

Police had never been able to crack the group until a botched bombing attempt June 29. It left an injured man -- a suspected November 17 operative -- who began to talk. Suddenly, police launched raids around the country.

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