ATHENS, Greece – Secretary of State Colin Powell canceled a weekend visit to Greece today just hours after demonstrators staged a protest march.
Greece’s foreign ministry said that Powell informed his Greek counterpart Petros Moliviatis that “urgent responsibilities” prevented him from carrying out the visit to attend the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics.
Powell thanked Moliviatis in a letter “for the especially successful and secure organization of the games.”
The foreign ministry said that Powell would instead visit Athens in October.
Before Powell canceled his visit, Greece’s communist party draped a large banner protesting his visit over a side of the ancient Acropolis hill near the Parthenon.
The trip threatened to mar the Olympics, which had avoided protests so far.
On Friday, police used tear gas to disperse more than 2,000 demonstrators who lighted fires, smashed windows and beat up journalists while marching through downtown Athens to protest the secretary of state’s weekend visit.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said the protests played no role in Powell’s decision to cancel his trip.
“The secretary considered a number of factors – the pressing business in Washington made him decide he could not visit at this time,” Cooper said.
The demonstrators, who scuffled with police in front of the Parliament, fought running battles with riot squads trying to prevent them from reaching the U.S. Embassy.
The embassy is not near any Olympic venues, but it is near the hotel being used by the International Olympic Committee and located on a major Olympic traffic lane. Powell was scheduled to arrive today to meet Premier Costas Caramanlis and attend the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics on Sunday night.
The small but influential communist party was gearing up for another anti-Powell rally later today that was to begin in front of the old campus of Athens University in central Athens and end at the U.S. Embassy.
“Powell killer go home. Don’t forget that civilians are being slaughtered in Najaf and a wall is being built in Palestine,” read an English slogan on the banner.
Police rushed to the Acropolis but did not intervene as a handful of party supporters guarded the banner and passed leaflets in English to tourists visiting the ancient site.
“We believe that we express the majority of the Greek people in opposition to Powell for crimes committed in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere in the world,” Antonis Skylakos, a Communist Party member of parliament, told the Associated Press.