Greece: Hunger strikers end campus occupation

More than 200 immigrants on hunger strike ended a five-day occupation of Athens University's Law School early Friday, following a tense standoff with police that underscored the country's ongoing illegal immigration crisis.

The immigrants, on hunger strike since Tuesday, were joined by scores of Greek demonstrators and left the university building before marching across the city center to a private building rented by pro-migrant campaigners.

The hunger strikers, most from north African countries, are demanding legalization — an appeal that was flatly rejected by the country's Socialist government, which is grappling with a growing illegal immigration problem.

Scores of police — included special forces — had surrounded the central Athens campus building during more 10 hours of negotiations that finally ended at 3:30 a.m. Friday (0130 GMT) when the immigrants walked out carrying rolls of blankets and thin mattresses. They filed past police, raising their arms to make the victory sign, as onlookers chanted slogans against the government and police.

Some protesters briefly attacked photographers and reporters outside the campus, accusing them of siding with police in the dispute.

Under Greek law, police are barred from entering university campuses, but academic authorities had lifted the university asylum Thursday, handing police the rarely granted power to intervene.

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the police cordon, chanting "Greek and foreign workers are united," while the standoff chocked evening rush-hour traffic in central Athens.

Greece is the European Union's busiest transit point for illegal immigration, and it has promised to take a tougher line against trafficking. About 90 percent of immigrants caught entering the bloc illegally are apprehended in Greece, according to European Union figures.

The country is planning to build a fence along a 12.5-kilometer (eight-mile) section of its northeastern border with Turkey, and use old army bases to detain illegal immigrants.

On Thursday, Greek Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis had ruled out using force to end the Law School occupation.

"A political decision has been made — my decision — that under no circumstances will we contribute to the tension, clashes or even bloodshed that certain people may have wanted," Papoutsis said after meeting with French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who was visiting Athens.

Hortefeux said his government is backing Greece's border fence plan.

"We support the creation of obstacles to counter immigration pressure," he said. "Of course this cannot be compared to the Berlin Wall or anything like that."

But the proposed fence has been met with criticism by human rights groups and a lukewarm response from the European Union.

Hortefeux said he also discussed a recent spike in violence by far-left groups in European countries.

France is seeking information on violent groups before hosting G-8 and G-20 summits later this year, he said.

"Traditionally, these summits attract protests ... We are looking into ways of sharing information and various preventive measures," Hortefeux said.


AP writers Elena Becatoros and Nicholas Paphitis contributed.