Athens bomb threat.
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
ATHENS, Greece — Suspected Greek terrorists unleashed an unprecedented two-day wave of mail bomb attacks in Athens and abroad, with one package reaching the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.
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Greek militant groups are suspected of mounting the attacks targeting embassies in Athens and international organizations and foreign leaders abroad. If that is confirmed, it would mark a dramatic escalation for organizations that have never before attempted to strike targets abroad.
The campaign used small devices that only caused one injury and minimal damage. But it highlights the difficulty of keeping bombs out of the international delivery system — also a target of Yemen-based militants armed with more powerful and potentially deadly explosives.
Security at all embassies in Athens has been increased and authorities on Tuesday suspended all international mail deliveries from Greece for 48 hours for further checks.
By Tuesday evening, at least 11 mail bombs had been detected in the Greek capital — one addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and eight to the embassies of Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Two more were destroyed in controlled explosions at Athens' international airport — one addressed to the European Union's highest court in Luxembourg and the other to law enforcement agency Europol in the Netherlands.
"A little flame was sparked" when a package addressed to Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was opened by bomb experts at the airport at Bologna, Italy, said police spokeswoman Donatella Dosi. No one was injured.
The TNT cargo plane had made an emergency landing in Bologna after TNT officials back in Greece realized there was a package aboard addressed to Berlusconi and informed the pilot, she said
The plane had originally been been bound for Paris and Liege, Belgium, the site of a package distribution center, said Dosi. The airport was closed to takeoffs and landings for hours while the TNT plane was searched to locate the package.
It was unclear whether the bomb sent to Germany was delivered by land or air. If sent by plane, it would highlight the potential limitations of air cargo security that remain, despite the concern triggered by the mail bombs dispatched recently from Yemen.
"If they have been flown, then it rather begs the question whether European freight air security is up to muster at all," said UK-based aviation security consultant Chris Yates.
But transportation industry officials also said there are few if any security checks on packages transported within the European Union by road or rail.
"Once they're in Europe, the goods are free to move around," said Robert Windsor, manager of trade services at the British International Freight Association.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the package that arrived Tuesday at Merkel's office was sent from Greece two days earlier by UPS delivery and resembled the Athens packages.
UPS, which transports mail in Europe both by ground and air, said it was aware of reports it had delivered the package but could not confirm them. "We're working closely with authorities to investigate," UPS spokesman Norman Black said by e-mail.
Sarkozy said French authorities were working with Greek police.
"The threat is very serious. We are extremely vigilant and I am following it very closely," Sarkozy said during a visit to London.
No connection has been made to the mail bombs from Yemen that were found on aircraft in Britain and Dubai, and Greek authorities are focusing on domestic groups.
The attacks began Monday when a mail bomb addressed to the Mexican embassy exploded at a delivery service in central Athens, lightly wounding one worker.
Police arrested two men in their twenties shortly after the blast. They
were allegedly carrying mail bombs addressed to Sarkozy and the Belgian
Embassy, along with handguns and bullets in waist pouches.
The two — Panagiotis Argyros, 22 and Gerasimos Tsakalos, 24, were
charged with terrorism-related offenses. Both refused to cooperate with
authorities, declining to give their names and claiming to be political
Police say Argyros was already wanted for alleged membership in a
radical group called Conspiracy Nuclei of Fire, which has carried out
crude arson and small bomb attacks in the past.