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Europe

Greece Close to Stamping Out Terror Group

The murder confession of a senior member marks the latest blow for the radical Marxist "November 17" group, which ranks near the top of most-wanted terrorist lists.

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Savas Xiros was severely injured when a time bomb he was carrying exploded in June.

For nearly three decades, the Greek terrorist group November 17 remained so elusive that it went on killing right under the noses of authorities without detection.

That all changed in late June, when authorities in Athens arrested Savas Xiros, a 40-year-old painter of religious icons, November 17 member and, now, confessed killer. Xiros had been severely injured when a bomb he was carrying detonated prematurely.

The arrest marked the beginning of the end for the elusive group, say prosecutors. Over the weekend, Greek authorities got confirmation of their progress after Xiros admitted to killing British defense attaché Stephen Saunders in a drive-by shooting in June 2000. The case brought in investigators from Scotland Yard and is credited with injecting new urgency in what had become a stagnant investigation by Greek police.

"I shot Saunders. I fired four times," Xiros told prosecutors. His attorney, Leonidas Zervobeakos, confirmed the statement to reporters over the weekend.

Xiros's confession is the remarkable culmination of a flurry of investigation since the bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely in July, putting him in intensive care with near fatal injuries.

His arrest led Greek and British investigators to an apartment held by Xiros for eight years that had been used to store the group's arsenal of heavy weaponry, including anti-tank bombs and grenades. Investigators also discovered Xiros' fingerprints on a car that had been used in the assassination of a Greek businessman in 1997 and a gun in his possession that had been fired against police officers in a robbery in 1984.

More than 16 people have been arrested as a result of the investigation into Xiros, who has since been charged with involvement in 80 terror attacks in Greece.

Anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-European

The anti-American November 17, named for the student uprising in 1973 that called for the ouster of a dictatorial regime installed following a coup d'etat staged by a U.S. backed general in 1967, has claimed responsibility for 23 murders. Authorities believe two men founded the terrorist organization in 1975 – 50-year-old Nikos Papanastasiou and 58-year-old university professor Alexandros Giotopoulos. Both have been in custody since July.

The inability of Greek officials to apprehend the group, which is listed by the United States as one of the world's most-wanted terrorist organizations, had long been a source of diplomatic tension between the State Department in Washington and Athens. With the Olympic Games planned for Athens in 2004, officials have been under intense pressure to track down and ferret out members of the group.

High-profile victims

In its three-decade history, November 17 has staged attacks against American, Greek and European Union officials as well as employees of foreign businesses with offices in the country.

The group calls for the ouster of U.S. troops from European bases, the end of Turkey's military occupation of Cyprus and the withdrawal of Greece from NATO and the European Union. The group's murders have always been high profile – starting in 1974 with the killing of the CIA's Athens station chief, Richard Welch.

Two men believed to be senior members of the group are still at large, and the Athens-based newspaper "Eleftherotypia" published a statement last week attributed to the November 17 saying that the group is "still alive." The statement also claimed that hostages would be taken and held as tokens to be exchanged for members currently in jail.