Greek police arrest Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos

Leader and senior members of far-right party held on charges of founding a criminal organisation

Nikolaos Michaloliakos

Nikos Michaloliakos was among those arrested on charges of forming a criminal organisation, police said. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Greek police have arrested the leader and other senior members of the far-right Golden Dawn party on charges of founding a criminal organisation.

Police announced the arrests of 16 Golden Dawn members, including party head Nikolaos Michaloliakos, spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris and two other politicians.

The arrests included a local Golden Dawn leader in an Athens suburb. The rest were ordinary members. It is the first time since 1974 that a party head and sitting MPs have been arrested.

Police officials said an operation by the counter-terrorism unit was still ongoing late on Saturday morning, and that about 35 arrest warrants for Golden Dawn members had been issued.

The arrested MPs will retain their parliamentary seats unless they are convicted of a crime. Golden Dawn holds 18 of the Greek parliament’s 300 seats, after winning nearly 7% of the vote in general elections last year.

Police are investigating the party for links with the killing of an anti-fascist rapper by a self-proclaimed Golden Dawn supporter. The stabbing to death of Pavlos Fyssas on 17 September sparked violent protests in Athens.

Kassidiaris is infamous for hitting a woman live on television for which he escaped prosecution.

Golden Dawn – Greece‘s third most popular party, according to opinion polls – has denied any links to the rapper’s killing and Michaloliakos has warned it may pull its members of parliament from parliament if the crackdown does not stop.

The party expressed outrage at the arrests in a text message to journalists on Saturday. “We call upon everyone to support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system! Everyone come to our offices!” it said.

A later text message called for supporters to head to police headquarters “with calm and order”. A small group of about 30 people initially gathered, standing on the sidewalk across the street from the building.

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