Greek police arrest 100 at squat, sparking protests

ATHENS Wed Jan 9, 2013 11:04am EST

Occupiers of ''Villa Amalia'' acknowledge supporters as they are escorted into a police bus in Athens January 9, 2013. REUTERS/John Kolesidis

Occupiers of ''Villa Amalia'' acknowledge supporters as they are escorted into a police bus in Athens January 9, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/John Kolesidis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek police arrested 100 people on Wednesday at an Athens squat popular with anti-establishment groups and radical leftists, prompting protesters to occupy the offices of a party in the ruling coalition.

Dozens more activists were gathering near the site of the squat in the center of the capital and more protests were expected later in the day.

The dilapidated Villa Amalia building, occupied by squatters for over two decades, was cleared by police last month. The arrests were made after 150 people re-occupied the site early on Wednesday, forcing officers to clear it again, police said.

In retaliation, protesters occupied and unfurled a banner pledging solidarity with the squat at the headquarters of the smallest party in Greece's government, the Democratic Left. About 40 people were detained there, police said.

Angry youths then blocked the entrance to a ministry where Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was due to hold a news conference, which began after a delay.

The squat - which hosts cultural events including debates and film screenings - has long been a focal point for various far-left groups and students, many of whom have taken part in frequent anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens.

Police seized wooden sticks, helmets, gas masks and a bottle with flammable liquid when the squat was cleared last month.

The raid has turned into a political issue, with the radical leftist Syriza opposition accusing the government of making arbitrary arrests and using it to divert attention from the country's deep economic crisis.

"The government is trying to use the attempted re-occupation of Villa Amalia by a group of anti-establishment protesters to distract the public from the Lagarde list scandal and the harsh bailout policy," Syriza said in a statement, referring to a scandal over a list of possible tax cheats.

"For 22 years, no one seemed to care about Villa Amalia. Now this has turned into the number one issue."

The government, in turn, has accused Syriza of supporting rioters and others who had broken the law.

"I wanted to make clear that a democratic society cannot allow unlawful forces to hinder the country's progress," said Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, calling the occupation of the Democratic Left party a "challenge to democracy".

The so-called Lagarde list names wealthy Greeks accused of stashing money abroad. It triggered a political scandal after prosecutors disclosed last month that names of relatives of former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou had been deleted from the list.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Pravin Char)

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