ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A lawmaker from Greece's extreme-right Golden Dawn party allegedly tried to punch the mayor of Athens on Thursday, swinging at him but reportedly missing and hitting a 12-year-old girl instead.
The confrontation came hours after police used pepper spray to prevent the nationalist party from distributing free food to Greek citizens only in the city's main Syntagma Square in defiance of a municipal ban the mayor had vowed to uphold.
Once a marginal group, Golden Dawn saw a meteoric rise in the polls in recent years, becoming Greece's third most popular party as the country slid further into financial crisis and unemployment skyrocketed. Its members have been repeatedly accused of involvement in violent attacks against immigrants and others.
"The only thing these people know is the language of violence," Mayor Giorgos Kaminis said after the incident, in which he said lawmaker Giorgos Germenis also tried to pull out a gun before being restrained by the mayor's bodyguards.
Germenis showed up at a municipal charity event where Kaminis was handing out gifts to children of unemployed parents ahead of Sunday's Orthodox Easter.
"This man sneaked in, we didn't notice him ... and he tried to hit me," Kaminis told Vima FM radio. "At the last minute my personal guards stopped him." The mayor said Germenis had a gun tucked into the back of his waist band, and attempted to pull the weapon out.
Television footage showed the mayor's bodyguards struggling with Germenis as a woman carrying a baby scurried out of the room. The security guards pinned the lawmaker against a wall before marching him out of the building.
Greek media said the blow intended for Kaminis ended up hitting a girl, leaving her with a bruised forehead but no serious injuries.
"Extreme actions, especially when their victims are innocent 12-year-old children, do not befit our democracy," said government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou.
Golden Dawn issued a statement denying a girl had been hit and vowing to sue Kaminis and his security guards. For his part, Kaminis intends to sue Germenis for the attempted attack, the municipality's press office said. Police said they were investigating complaints against the lawmaker for threats and brandishing a weapon.
Golden Dawn had announced it would hand out free Easter food to Greeks only on Thursday. Kaminis had banned any such events in the city's main square, and vowed Wednesday not to allow the "soup kitchen of hate" to take place.
But party members with Golden Dawn logo emblazoned across the backs of their black T-shirts arrived more than two hours before the announced time with a truck carrying meat, potatoes and other goods and began handing out bags of food after checking recipients' identity cards.
Scuffles broke out with riot police, who used pepper spray to repel party members wielding Greek flags on thick wooden sticks.
Giving up on the idea of a charity handout in the capital's main square, the party moved the distribution to its own offices in downtown Athens — not far from where Kaminis later attended the separate municipal charity event.
"Today in Syntagma Square, the law was implemented against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis who once again displayed their wares: racist hatred, the use of violence and bullying," said Fofi Gennimata, spokeswoman of the Socialist PASOK party that is a junior member of the governing coalition.
Though Golden Dawn rejects the neo-Nazi label, its website shows great fondness for Nazi literature and symbols.