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.
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.
|A police car carries two men, not seen inside car, who were detained after an explosion at a private delivery company in Athens, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010|
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.
Bombs addressed to embassies and state leaders were not likely to reach their intended targets, said Andrew Silke, Director Terrorism Studies at the University of East London. But the bombers probably achieved their aim by generating worldwide publicity.
"If they had just left the devices on the streets of Athens it wouldn't have got nearly anything like the attention it got internationally," Silke said. "This happening so close to the Yemeni attempt to get bombs into the United States means it probably has more of a resonance that it would otherwise."
Mail bombs are also easy to put together, he noted.
"It's a very simple way to cause an awful lot of disruption," Silke said. "The devices are usually very simple to make. The ingredients needed to make them are cheap."
With so much attention, "I wouldn't be surprised if this would lead to a significant increase in this type of attacks in the coming months."
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 prisoners.
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.
Radical groups have long been active in Greece. After a few years of relative quiet, such groups stepped up attacks following riots that hit Greek cities in December 2008, sparked by the deadly police shooting of a teenager in Athens.
Four people have been killed in bombings or shooting attacks since 2009.
Much of the unrest harks back to the sharp postwar divide between right and left, which led to a civil war and a seven-year military dictatorship. Although a student uprising succeeded in ending military rule in 1974, tensions remain between Greece's security establishment and a phalanx of deeply entrenched leftist groups that often protest against globalization and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The government condemned the attacks, vowing to catch the culprits.
"We stand firm, unyielding against anyone who tries, in vain, with terrorist actions to disrupt social peace and harm our country's image internationally during a particularly difficult time," Prime Minister George Papandreou said.
The country is in the midst of a debt crisis, and only avoided bankruptcy in May after securing billions of euros in emergency loans from its European partners — led by Germany — and the International Monetary Fund. In exchange, the government made painful spending cuts, slashing pensions and salaries and hiking taxes.
The cuts have led to a backlash of anger from workers who have seen their income cut and spending power curtailed.