Notorious Greek fugitive arrested on bicycle

A picture released by Greek police shows convicted terrorist Christodoulos Xiros after his arrest on January 3, 2015
A picture released by Greek police shows convicted terrorist Christodoulos Xiros after his arrest on January 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/) (Greek Police/AFP)

Athens (AFP) - A notorious Greek fugitive who absconded while serving a life sentence for acting as a hitman for an extreme left group was caught Saturday as he rode a bicycle while armed with a loaded pistol, police said.

Christodoulos Xiros was taken into custody in the southern suburb of Anavyssos just shy of a year following his January 7, 2014 disappearance while on prison leave.

He had been serving multiple life sentences for deadly attacks he participated in as a hitman for the November 17 group and had been on a nine-day New Year's break when he disappeared.

Police caught him as he rode a bike in the neighbourhood where the 56-year-old radical had been renting an apartment in recent months.

"He changed his physical appearance, wearing long hair, a goatee, glasses," said the head of Greece's police Dimitrios Tsaknakis. "He had a pistol on him loaded with 14 bullets."

Xiros, who didn't resist arrest, was immediately handed to anti-terrorism authorities.

Before its breakup in 2002, November 17 was one of Greece's most violent far-left organisations, claiming responsibility for 23 assassinations during its 27-year span, including the 1975 killing of the CIA's Athens station chief, Richard Welch.

Despite November 17's dissolution, Xiros allegedly remained a committed militant and maintained close contacts with fellow jailed radicals.

Shortly after his escape last year, he appeared in an online video berating Greece's government over the austerity policies it enacted at the behest of international creditors and threatened to "fire the guerrilla shotgun against those who stole our life and sold our dreams."

Several months later, authorities found DNA on a parcel bomb sent to a police station in the city of Itea that matched traces lifted from the car Xiros used to go into hiding.

Authorities suspect Xiros began working with a group calling itself "Conspiracy of Cells of Fire," which claimed responsibility for the parcel bomb -- detonated by police -- and expressed solidarity with the fugitive.

Greece's public safety minister Vassilis Kikilias saluted the arrest of Xiros, whom he labeled a "terrorist".

Xiros' arrest marks a breakthrough for Greek police, but the country still faces a threat from other like-minded, far-left militants prepared to carry out violent attacks.

In December, gunmen raked the Israeli embassy in Athens with machine gun fire. A year earlier, the German ambassador's residence was targeted in a similar attack.

No one was injured in either incident, which police suspected to be the work of left-wing extremists.

In April 2014, a booby-trapped car exploded outside the Bank of Greece in central Athens as Greece prepared to return to debt markets after a four-year absence.

The "Revolutionary Struggle" militant group claimed responsibility for that attack.