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Yugoslavia: Protests Continue In Greece Against NATO Air Strikes

By Tito Singh

Athens, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As anti-NATO protests continue in the Greek capital, Athens, the government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis finds itself pinched between popular opinion to end air strikes against Yugoslavia and the demands of fellow NATO allies to stay the course.

Our correspondent in Athens says the general mood on the streets of the capital is decidedly against NATO. He said residents are either closely watching television reports of the fighting or are sitting in the city's many coffee shops discussing with friends the crisis in Serbia's Kosovo province.

Most Greeks seem to feel deep sympathy for fellow Christian Orthodox Serbs. Orthodox leaders in Greece have condemned the NATO air strikes and called for an end to the conflict.

Western new agencies report that at least 3,000 anti-NATO protesters marched to the U.S. embassy in Athens last night, shouting "Americans Out." Meanwhile, 1,000 Greek musicians, writers and actors sat outside the heavily guarded embassy after burning American and British flags. They held candles and posters reading "The People Will Win." Large anti-NATO protests have also occurred in the northern city of Salonika.

The Greek government -- reportedly under pressure from the U.S. -- has condemned ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in Kosovo and has also provided logistical support to its NATO partners. But it has refused to take part in the NATO attacks and is concerned about a spillover of refugees fleeing Kosovo.

Government spokesman Dimitris Reppas told reporters yesterday that war never resolves problems, it only creates them. He said Greek initiatives to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis have been "many and substantial." But he said now is not the right time for a fresh tour of Balkan capitals by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou.

Reppas said Papandreou had telephone conversations yesterday about Kosovo with his British and Canadian counterparts. He said Canada expressed interest in participating in humanitarian aid efforts to help Kosovar refugees.

Reppas said Greece is following guidelines that displaced persons should be assisted as close to their homes as possible. He said that is why Greece is providing economic and material support to Albania and Macedonia. Papandreou met this week with Greek church leaders to coordinate aid efforts. Athens has so far pledged about $400,000 in humanitarian aid to Macedonia.

Macedonia said this week that it may have to send an overflow of refugees to Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria because it cannot handle the influx alone. Macedonia's Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Kiprjanova says Athens has agreed to accept 3,600 Kosovar Albanians.

Our correspondent reports that Greek Interior Minister Vaso Papandreou chaired a recent meeting of senior government ministers to discuss the refugee problem. Papandreou says the situation in the Balkans is dramatic but that there is no fear Greece will become involved. She said the main concern of the government in Athens is to send humanitarian aid so that refugees will be able to stay close to their homes.

A spokesman for Greece's main opposition party, New Democracy -- Aris Spiliotopoulos -- says there is still room for a political solution to the crisis in Kosovo. Spiliotopoulos said he believes the NATO air strikes should be called off and time given to diplomatic efforts held within the framework of the Rambouillet agreement. Meanwhile, Greek Defense Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos is due to begin a previously scheduled visit to Romania tomorrow. Tsohatzopoulos is expected to also travel to Bulgaria and Macedonia to discuss Greek initiatives to end the crisis. Tsohatzopoulos is expected back in Athens on Saturday night.