Greek police arrest leader, lawmakers of far-right Golden Dawn


* Biggest crackdown on elected party since fall of junta

* Party members charged with participating in criminal group

* "Nothing can scare us!" party spokesman says

* Government rules out snap elections

By Renee Maltezou and George Georgiopoulos

ATHENS, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Greek police arrested the leaderand more than a dozen senior members of the far-right GoldenDawn party early on Saturday after the killing of ananti-fascist rapper by a party supporter triggered outrage andprotests across the country.

The arrests, which are the most significant crackdown on apolitical party in Greece since the fall of a militarydictatorship in 1974, are the biggest setback to Golden Dawnsince it entered parliament on an anti-immigrant agenda lastyear.

"Nothing can scare us!" shouted a handcuffed IliasKasidiaris, spokesman of the party, as he was transferred to theprosecutors' office flanked by hooded anti-terrorism policeofficers carrying machineguns.

Kasidiaris and the party's leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos,three other lawmakers and 13 other members of the party werearrested on Saturday on charges of founding and participating ina criminal organisation.

Police also confiscated two guns and a hunting rifle fromMihaloliakos' home, saying he did not have a licence for them.

Ranked as Greece's third most popular party, Golden Dawn isunder investigation for the murder of rapper Pavlos Fissas, whobled to death after being stabbed twice by a party sympathiserlast week.

The party has denied any links to the killing of Fissas.

The anti-terrorism force, which is handling the case, waslooking for one more senior party official and lawmaker, policespokesman Christos Parthenis said. Two police officials werealso arrested on Saturday, he added.

Late in the evening, the detainees were taken under highsecurity to the prosecutors' office and charged officially onevidence linking the party with a string of attacks, includingthe stabbing of the rapper on Sept. 17 and the killing of animmigrant earlier this year, court officials told Reuters.

Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias hailed the arrests as "ahistoric day for Greece and Europe."

"I want to assure Greek citizens that the investigation willnot end here," Dendias said. "There is no room for criminalorganisations in Greece."

Mihaloliakos has warned that Golden Dawn could pull its 18lawmakers from parliament if the crackdown does not stop.

If potential by-elections were won by the opposition, assome polls indicate, Greece's fragile two-party coalition wouldbecome politically untenable, Mihaloliakos has argued. But agovernment official said Greece might be able to avoid suchby-elections depending on how the constitution is interpreted.

The party called on its website for protests in solidaritywith its jailed leader and members.

Several hundred of its supporters gathered outside policeheadquarters waving Greek flags and chanting: "Long live theleader!" and "Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn". About 200 protestersunfurled a banner reading: "Golden Dawn" outside the party'sheadquarters in Athens.

"Golden Dawn is here. It will not back down. You cannot jailideas," Golden Dawn MP Artemis Mattheopoulos, who is not amongthose detained, told reporters.


Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' government has so farresisted calls to ban the party, fearing it could make it evenmore popular at a time of growing anger at repeated rounds ofausterity measures. It has instead tried to undermine the partyby ordering probes that could deprive it of state funding.

Samaras ruled out snap elections after the arrests. Thegovernment has also played down talk of political instabilityand promised all Golden Dawn members would receive a fair trial.

The arrests surprised Greeks wary of political theatre in acountry where little has been done over the past year to rein ina party that is frequently accused of attacking migrants, acharge it denies.

"It's good that they arrested them, but I'm afraid that wewill start killing each other now," said Dimitra Vassilopoulou,a 58-year old housewife.

"Does the government actually mean it or is it just a tacticto impress us? Why didn't they do anything when the immigrantswere killed? How come they just discovered that Golden Dawn is acriminal organisation?"

Golden Dawn controls 18 of parliament's 300 seats and had sofar appeared immune to accusations of violence and intimidation,scoring 14 percent in opinion polls before the stabbing. Twopolls this week showed support had fallen to as low as 6.7 to6.8 percent.

Greek lawmakers do not lose their political rights or seats unless there is a final court ruling against them. But thegovernment has proposed a law that could block state funding forGolden Dawn if police find links to Fissas' murder.

The party, whose emblem resembles a swastika, rose fromobscurity to enter parliament last year after promising to mineGreece's borders to prevent illegal immigrants from entering.Its members have been seen giving Nazi-style salutes and itsleader has denied the Holocaust. The party rejects the neo-Nazilabel.

Human rights groups have accused the party of being linkedto attacks on immigrants, but this is the first time it is beinginvestigated for evidence linking it to an attack.

It is not the first time its leader is being prosecuted. In1979, Mihaloliakos was convicted of possessing explosives.

Mihaloliakos' daughter rushed to kiss her father as heentered the court, on his way to the prosecutors' office.

"I'm proud of my father, like any child would be if itsfather faced such political charges," Ourania Mihaloliakou toldreporters. "We are stronger than ever."

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