ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece scrapped police protection for lawmakers from the far-right Golden Dawn party on Monday after the bodyguards did nothing while the deputies went on a rampage destroying street stands run by migrant vendors.
Led by three lawmakers, Golden Dawn supporters in black glasses and black T-shirts overturned and broke tables manned by migrants at open-air markets held on Saturday at the central Greek towns of Messolongi and Rafina.
Reacting to public criticism for police inaction, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said on Monday he suspended the Rafina police chief.
His ministry also said it removed the state-appointed bodyguards protecting all Golden Dawn lawmakers, saying it wanted to spare policemen the conflict of having to either protect the deputies or stopping them from illegal behavior.
It was the first time police protection had been revoked for lawmakers, police officials said. Armed bodyguards are among privileges enjoyed by all Greek lawmakers.
"The police force has decided to remove police protection for Golden Dawn members of parliament after the party announced that it will continue with violent actions and abuse of authority," the ministry said in a statement.
"The decision is aimed at protecting police guards from unintentional conflict of duty in guarding lawmakers, since their duty is to pursue and arrest violators."
Golden Dawn emerged from obscurity to win parliamentary seats in a June election, capitalizing on rising anti-immigrant sentiment in austerity-torn Greece by campaigning to rid the country of all foreigners.
The party said it had checked vendors' permits and chased out foreigners who had none. "Golden Dawn members did today what the absent state should have done a long time ago," it said in a statement.
Apart cracking down on illegal immigrants, the party offers for-Greeks-only food aid and tried to set up a blood bank only for Greeks.
The party denies it is neo-Nazi but its symbol is reminiscent of the Nazi swastika and its members have been seen giving Nazi salutes.
Golden Dawn's popularity has grown even though its leader Nikos Mihaloliakos has denied the Holocaust and its spokesman hit a female lawmaker during a television debate.
A poll published last week showed its popularity has surged to 10.5 percent, a rating that would make it Greece's third-most popular party if elections were held now.
The Association of Small Greek Vendors, which has long complained about unfair competition from street vendors without documents, hailed the party's action and urged it to do more.
"We absolutely agree (with the action), it should be widened throughout the country," the group said, according to the semi-official Athens News Agency (ANA).
(Reporting by Harry Papachristou; Editing by Alison Williams)