The Nando times - Clinton seeks to defuse anti-US sentiment in Greece

By ROBERT BURNS

ATHENS, Greece (November 20, 1999 9:07 a.m. EST) - President Clinton said Saturday that the United States was wrong to back the military junta that took control in Greece in 1967 - an action at the core of festering anti-U.S. sentiments that erupted anew in violent protests during his visit.

In an address to business leaders, Clinton said it is time for the United States to admit it erred 30 years ago by allowing Cold War strategy to outweigh concern for Greece's democratic government.

"When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest, I should say its obligation, to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War," Clinton said. "It is important that we acknowledge that."

The president's remarks were aimed at defusing hot anti-American sentiments that spilled into the streets of the Greek capital on Friday, when demonstrators set businesses ablaze to express their disdain for Clinton's visit.

During a joint appearance with Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, Clinton said he regretted the losses from the rioting. He said he felt those who opposed his visit had a right to protest, but that they had a responsibility to keep their protests peaceful.

"Therefore, I deeply regret the Greeks who had their property injured and suffered losses through these demonstrations," he said. "The important thing is we reaffirmed the value of the relationship between our two countries."

Clinton said the violence "doesn't affect our affection for and support for the people of Greece and the government of Greece. I hope most Greek citizens believe there is value in our relationship and our partnership."

Simitis said Greece is a nation "where everyone can express their opinions." But he agreed that such expressions should be made peacefully.

"I'm sorry for the fact that certain people did not respect this fundamental principle of law," he said, adding that relations between Greece and the United States "will not be determined by these protests."

Clinton spoke after separate meetings with Simitis and President Costis Stephanopoulos. Later, he was delivering a speech on U.S.-Greek relations and Greece's role in Europe before departing for Italy.

Friday night, riot police wearing gas masks faced off with more than 10,000 people in front of the parliament building in central Syndagma Square as Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were driven to a state dinner at the 19th century presidential mansion. The motorcade route was cleared of cars and he saw nothing of the violent protests, which were staged by opponents of the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.

The president was asked about the protests today as he toured Acropolis hills, hand in hand with daughter Chelsea. "I'm sorry about it," was all he said then.

During the tour, Clinton assured Greece's minister of culture, Elisavet Papazoi, that he would urge Britain to return prized sculptures from the ancient Parthenon, the subject of an ongoing dispute.

Dark, acrid smoke hung over many parts of the city center as police enforced a ban on marching to the U.S. Embassy, where 15,000 people protested peacefully earlier this week. Alarms wailed after demonstrators broke shop windows and hurled gasoline bombs inside. Police said dozens of stores and banks were damaged.

The government characterized the violence as the work of a small minority that did not represent the views of ordinary Greeks.

"In sentiment it's a minority and in sheer numbers it's a minority," Alex Rondos, a Foreign Ministry official, told American reporters. He said police were careful to clear Clinton's motorcade route and to keep protesters away from his hotel.

"It was our commitment to offer the appropriate security," Rondos said.

In remarks at the state dinner, Clinton made a veiled allusion to the anti-American protests.

"If some engage in passionate debate, it is well to remember how hard both our countries have fought for their right to do just that," Clinton said. Earlier Friday in Istanbul, Turkey, where he attended the closing session of a 54-nation European summit, Clinton told reporters, "If people want to protest they ought to have a chance to do it."

Clinton had been scheduled to spend two days in Athens, but the visit was shortened by one day and delayed because of concerns that the Greek government would not contain the protests. From Athens, Clinton was flying later today to Florence, Italy, then stop in Bulgaria and Kosovo before returning home Wednesday.

Most of the violence Friday was carried out by a few hundred self-proclaimed anarchists. Other anti-American sentiment revolves around suspicion that the United States favors Greece's historic rival, Turkey.

One of the central objectives of Clinton's trip to Europe, which began Sunday in Turkey, is to push for reconciliation between Greece and Turkey, which have many strong disputes, including resource claims in the Aegean and control of the island of Cyprus.

Clinton indicated today he didn't think Turkey was likely to win access to the European Union unless it settled its dispute with Greece over governance of the island of Cyprus.

"These two countries need to go hand in hand into the future, and the festering disputes need to be resolved in order for that to happen," he said.

At the state dinner, Stephanopoulos staked out a tough line on Cyprus, blaming the problems there on "the aggressive policies of Turkey" and saying he fears Greece will be called upon to make all the concessions when the two sides meet for talks next month in New York.

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