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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 21:09 GMT
Greek Albanians' woes fester
The Athens bus hostage drama involving two armed Albanians has thrown the spotlight on Greece's Albanians, who form the country's largest minority, estimated at nearly one million.

Arrest of hostage-takers (right and second from left)
The 18-hour drama ended when the hostage-takers surrendered
Fearing an anti-immigrant backlash, the Greek authorities appealed for calm after the gunmen's surrender on Wednesday night.

"The fact that two immigrants were the perpetrators of this incident should in no way influence our attitudes or behaviour," said Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis.

"We are an open and democratic society that makes no distinctions and shuts no one out."

Ethnic tensions

Human rights groups say Greece has one of the worst records in the European Union for racism against ethnic minorities.

But the Greek government is planning to introduce new laws to stop hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the country facing discrimination at work and from the social security system.

Remaining hostages leave hijacked bus in Athens
The hostage-takers had threatened to blow up the bus
If passed by parliament the legislation would help bring Greece closer to European Union standards by aiming to eradicate discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sex or disability, the BBC's Richard Galpin reports from Athens.

Earlier this year, Albanian immigrants across the country came under attack for daring to come out onto the streets to celebrate the Albanian football team's victory over Greece in a World Cup qualifying match.

One man was stabbed to death and many others were injured in what human rights organisations called the first incident of mass racism in Greece's modern history.

Lure of Olympics

Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian journalist with the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea, says there is general relief among the country's Albanians that the latest incident ended without bloodshed.

There were also expressions of incredulity and ridicule at the Albanian gunmen's amateurish methods, he says. They had tried to pass themselves off as Russians and bluffed about having a bag of explosives. It turned out to contain croissants and cigarettes.

Greek football fans celebrate Euro 2004 success in Thessaloniki, June 04
Greek national pride reached fever pitch during Euro 2004
Many Albanians found work in Greece in the run-up to the Athens Olympics in August.

Now that the Games are over they are keen to stay, Kapllani told the BBC News website.

But they complain of discrimination in the Greek job market, justice system and education, he said.

"Many fear that a long-overdue debate about integration, set in motion by the Olympics, will now be distorted," he added.

Albanian hostage-takers also carried out two previous bus hijackings in Greece - in May and July 1999. In each case the hostage-taker demanded money and safe passage to Albania, and both times they were killed by police.

But according to Kapllani, the latest bus hijacking was different, because some of the passengers were Albanians themselves and reportedly helped to negotiate an end to the stand-off.

School furore

The tiny village of Lapa in the Peloponnese has become a focus of ethnic tensions in recent years, fuelled by a controversy over an annual children's parade to mark the day Greece entered World War II.

By law, the brightest pupil in the local school should have the honour of carrying the national flag, but in Lapa that happened to be an Albanian girl. She was forced to step down after angry protests by parents and other pupils, the BBC's Richard Galpin reports.

"This is a Greek celebration so it should be a Greek carrying the flag," was the comment by one Greek schoolgirl.

The 16-year-old Albanian pupil at the centre of the storm complained bitterly: "The law gives me the right to carry the flag - there was no reason for me not to".

"I love Greece and I love it as my country. I was upset by their reaction and by the fact that they chose a sit-in at the school as a way of protesting."

According to Panayote Dimitras, spokesman of the anti-racism campaign group the Greek Helsinki Monitor, racism in Greece is deep-rooted.

"Greek national culture is one that believes there is a superiority of the Greek nation which is a continuous descendent of the ancient Greeks, and when you think like this about yourself it is very easy to think that the others are inferior," he says.

Until the early 1990s, Greece had been an extremely homogenous society, but with the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe it suddenly experienced big influxes of immigrants, particularly from Albania.

Now, immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa make up 10% of the country's population. The government needs to move fast to convince the Greeks that becoming a multi-cultural society is a positive, not a negative development, Richard Galpin reports.

Greek police kill bus hijacker
16 Jul 99 |  Europe
Two killed in bus ambush
29 May 99 |  Europe
Country profile: Greece
24 Nov 04 |  Country profiles


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