Image: Public Order Ministry
Petros Giannakouris  /  AP
A car enters the Public Order Ministry building's compound just outside central Athens on Thursday.
updated 6/24/2010 5:48:36 PM ET 2010-06-24T21:48:36

A bomb disguised as a gift exploded inside the Greek law enforcement ministry on Thursday night, killing a close ministerial aide in Greece's highest profile attack in years.

Public Order Minister Michalis Chryssohoidis, who was in his office a few yards (meters) away from the blast, said the package had been intended for him. Pale and visibly shaken, but otherwise unharmed, he told reporters he had "lost a valuable and beloved associate."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which killed police officer Giorgos Vassilakis, a 50-year-old father of two. But suspicion fell on radical Greek militant groups opposed to government economic and social policies.

"I express my pain and exasperation — pain and exasperation that every Greek citizen feels over today's terrorist attack," Prime Minister George Papandreou said.

The groups have stepped up attacks in recent years and have been targeted in a recent police crackdown. Although militants often carry out bombings, the vast majority involve small devices planted outside banks, foreign companies or car dealerships late at night and do not cause any injuries.

"At a time when our country and our people are waging a daily battle to bring us out of the (financial) crisis, cowardly murderers want to undermine normality and our democracy ... and the sacrifices the Greek people are making to set the country on its feet," Papandreou said in a statement.

Greece has been gripped by a severe financial crisis and narrowly avoided defaulting on its debt by receiving the first installment of euro110 billion ($134.9 billion) in rescue loans from other EU countries and the International Monetary Fund.

As part of the deal, Papandreou's government has imposed stringent austerity measures, to the outrage of labor unions who have responded with a series of strikes and demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent.

Police said the package exploded at about 8:30 p.m. about 25 meters (25 yards) away from Chryssohoidis' office on the seventh floor of the heavily guarded ministry located just outside the capital's center.

"The cowardly murderers will be brought to justice," said Chryssohoidis, who is considered instrumental in dismantling Greece's notorious November 17 terrorist group in 2002 during his previous tenure as public order minister.

November 17, named for the date of a student uprising against Greece's 1967-74 military dictatorship, had killed 23 people, including foreign diplomats and Greek businessmen, in shootings and bombings from 1975 to 2002.

"We say one more time that we are not afraid and we will not be terrorized," Chryssohoidis stressed. "We will continue our struggle to keep our citizens, neighborhoods, and cities safe."

Authorities said Thursday's powerful explosion caused extensive damage inside the ministry, but that there were no other injuries. Officials said it was not immediately clear how the package had been delivered — whether it had been taken into the ministry by hand, sent by a courier or in the mail.

Bombings and shootings by radical domestic groups in Greece increased significantly after the fatal police shooting of an Athens teenager in December 2008, which sparked the country's worst riots in decades. Over the past nine months, police have arrested more than a dozen people accused of belonging to two small militant groups that claimed responsibility for a string of bombings, including a rocket attack against the U.S. Embassy in 2007.

In March, a 15-year-old Afghan boy was killed when he opened a bag containing a bomb that had been planted outside a management institute in an Athens neighborhood. The boy's 10-year-old sister suffered serious facial injuries that damaged her sight.

The boy was the first person to be killed in a bomb attack in Athens since 1999, when a blast outside a hotel killed a conference worker. Another two people were killed in separate shootings claimed by terrorist groups since 2000.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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