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Over 30,000 march in Greek annual anti-junta demos

John HADOULIS
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The anti-junta demonstration is a treasured anniversary for many Greeks

Over 30,000 Greeks demonstrated under a heavy police presence Sunday to mark the anniversary of a 1973 anti-junta uprising, the first since the election of the new conservative government.

The protest, one of the largest and most uneventful in years, was heavily influenced by opposition to the four-month administration of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, elected in July on a pledge to strengthen law and order.

"Down with the right-wing government" read a banner carried by the protesters. "Uprisings do not end up in museums," some of them chanted.

There were also banners against the government's labour and education reforms, and slogans shouted against US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A pair of protesters burned EU and US flags.

Some 20,000 people marched in Athens, police said, in remembrance of dozens of people who died in the 1973 military crackdown on a student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic.

Another 9,000 people demonstrated in Thessaloniki, where protesters threw firebombs at cars, authorities said.

Separate demonstrations were also held in Greece's other major cities.

Some 5,000 officers were mobilised in the capital, backed by drones, a helicopter and water cannon, police said, as a precaution against the violence that regularly breaks out during the annual protest.

Several youths were arrested after Molotov firebombs and stones were found on a roof in the bohemian district of Exarchia, in an apparent plan to ambush riot police passing below.

On Wednesday, in a move seen as directed against the demonstration, the government secured parliamentary approval of a law applying harsher penalties for public violence.

Throwing a Molotov cocktail -- a fairly frequent occurrence at demonstrations in Greece -- is now punishable by up to 10 years in prison, up from five years previously.

- Mayor's appeal -

The demonstration marks the 46th anniversary of the student uprising. Traditionally, it ends in front of the American embassy, which was ringed with police vans Sunday, as the fervently anti-Communist dictators enjoyed backing from Washington.

At least 24 people were killed in the 1973 crackdown, an event generally considered to have broken the junta's grip on power and helped the restoration of democracy.

The bloodstained flag that flew over the Polytechnic's iron gate, which was crushed by a tank that night, was carried at the head of the demonstration in the capital, a longstanding tradition.

Athens mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, who is the PM's nephew, urged respect for the city.

"On this anniversary, let's send out the right message. A shared message about memory," he wrote in a Facebook message Friday.

The anti-junta demonstration is a treasured anniversary for many Greeks.

- 'Junta applauder' -

In recent years, demonstrators have used the anniversary to voice opposition to US "imperialism", and the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece by international creditors after the global financial crisis.

But Mitsotakis's administration has now come under fire over a flurry of police operations against anarchist squats and demonstrators.

Leftist main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras became the first former prime minister to take part in the march alongside former ministers.

He accused the conservative government of harbouring "junta applauders" in its midst, referring to former far-right politicians given cabinet posts by Mitsotakis.

There is also tension over a recent government amendment to facilitate police checks in universities, which has prompted several student protests.

"Police have no place in universities... but neither does lawlessness," Citizen's Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis told To Vima weekly on Sunday.

This week the Polytechnic's rector Andreas Bantouvas said: "We need to be careful these days, and (public) comments must be guarded."

Justice Minister Kostas Tsiaras, speaking ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary vote, told lawmakers ahead of the vote in parliament: "Laws and regulations are needed for Greek citizens to feel safe."

On Monday, some 200 students demonstrating at the Athens University of Economics were surrounded by anti-riot police who used tear gas and arrested two protesters.