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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 14:41 GMT
Viewpoint: Best and worst of Greece
Members of the Greek presidential guard - the Evzones
Proud: Greece does not stand for being pushed around
Paul Wood

The plane-spotter affair has seen the two contradictory faces of Greece on display to the world.


The British will have to realise that even small countries like Greece have laws too

Greek newspaper

One Greece - the one I have come to love in three years of living here - is open, warm, friendly, democratic and modern.

The other Greece is proud, suspicious and inward looking.

One of the most remarkable things about Greece is that traditions of hospitality remain as strong as ever despite decades of mass tourism, which sees millions of visitors invade the country each summer.


Sometimes I despair of my own country

Greek generals

The British plane-spotters experienced that hospitality when they visited Greece last year.

At one air base, the colonel in charge invited them to share some wine and a traditional loaf to mark the special day for the patron saint of the air force, Saint Michael.

This year, the plane-spotters had made special inquiries about any new security restrictions in the wake of 11 September attacks.

Resentment

But they had no reason to think their reception would be any different to that of last year - and were shocked when secret servicemen in dark glasses surrounded them and demanded their detention.


What would the British government's reaction be if 14 Afghans came to spy on your airfields

Leana Kaneli, Greek MP

The campaign group Fair Trials Abroad says there is no evidence whatsoever against some members of the group - and they are being held in blatant defiance of the European Human Rights Convention.

Greek officials have rallied to the defence of their legal system.

"What would the British Government's reaction be if 14 Afghans came to spy on your airfields?" said Greek MP Leana Kaneli.

British diplomats here will tell you it can often be counterproductive to make any criticism of Greece in public.

They say that newspaper campaigns in the UK for a boycott of Greek feta cheese and olive oil are deeply resented here.

"The British will have to realise that even small countries like Greece have laws too," one newspaper editor here said.

Volatile

Greece is a small country of 10 million people. Public opinion is volatile, quickly swinging one way and then another.

Plane-spotters in Greek court house
The plane-spotters deny any wrong-doing

Many ordinary Greeks now seem firmly of the opinion that the 12 Britons are spies.

You will often hear conspiracy theories here that Greece is the victim of a plot involving the CIA, Turkey and America's trusted ally, Great Britain.

The allegation that the plane-spotters were involved in espionage seems to confirm that view.

"Sometimes I despair of my own country," is a phrase I have heard expressed in identical terms in recent days by both senior foreign military generals and by defence lawyers.

Proud nation

No Greek likes the recent hostile portrayal of this country as some kind of European banana republic.

And this small, proud nation does not stand for being pushed around.

However, while some Greeks are embarrassed by the workings of their legal system in the case of plane-spotters, they also ask for understanding.

Greece is a border state, facing in Turkey a military power many times its size.

It still has national service and there is an ever-present fear that one day open conflict with Turkey will resume.

It is these fears which are dividing the prosecution against the plane-spotters.

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