By Nick Squires 6:00PM BST 02 May 2013
An attempt by members of Greece's far-Right, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn political party to hand out emergency food rations to Greeks only was broken up by police firing tear gas on Thursday.
The party, which has attracted widespread condemnation for its xenophobic, racist policies, attempted to distribute bread, eggs and lamb to Greeks outside parliament in Athens' Syntagma Square, ahead of the start of the Greek Orthodox Easter on Sunday.
But the stunt ended in chaos, with Golden Dawn members in black T-shirts hitting riot police over the head with rolled up Greek flags and the police firing a volley of tear gas.
The party had tried to push ahead with the food handout in defiance of a ban imposed by the mayor of Athens, George Kaminis.
He had called the plan a "soup kitchen of hatred" because only people able to prove their nationality by showing a Greek identity card were eligible to receive food. It was "arbitrary, racist and illegal", he said.
Golden Dawn held a similar event in Syntagma Square last year, after which the mayor vowed that he would not allow a repeat performance.
During a day of acute tension, Mr Kaminis alleged that a Golden Dawn MP, Giorgos Germenis, tried to punch him and that he drew a hand gun.
Police said Mr Germenis had moved "menacingly" against the mayor and that they would investigate the firearm allegations.
He was led away by security officers. His punch reportedly landed on a 12-year-old girl instead, injuring her.
Around 200 party members turned up in the square more than two hours earlier than announced and began handing out bags of food after checking recipients' identity cards.
"Golden Dawn will stand beside Greeks, it will stand by the suffering Greeks whatever decisions the immigrant-loving Mr Kaminis takes. Greeks, keep your heads high, happy holidays! We will take our country back," said Christos Pappas, the head of the Golden Dawn parliamentary group.
Scuffles broke out between party members and riot police as authorities tried to prevent the party's truck from unloading its cargo of meat and other goods.
Police used pepper spray to force back party officials holding Greek flags on thick wooden sticks, and the truck was eventually forced to move on.
"Today the logic of violence, of thuggery, of 'having my way' was beaten," said the mayor.
"Syntagma Square will never be used again by anyone to hand out goods. Thuggery will not prevail in this city as long as I am mayor."
The party transferred the handout to its offices in another part of the capital, giving out free potatoes and Easter eggs to hundreds of supporters.
Golden Dawn rose from obscurity last year, tapping into resentment among ordinary Greeks over the growing number of immigrants in the country, and feeding on the desperation caused by six years of recession.
In elections last year, the party won nearly seven per cent of the vote and took 18 of Parliament's 300 seats.
Polls suggest the party is now Greece's third biggest political force.
Party members display Nazi symbols and have been seen giving Nazi-style salutes but deny having neo-Nazi sympathies.
But many of its members have been implicated in vicious attacks on immigrants.
Greece is an entry point for large numbers of illegal immigrants trying to reach other parts of the European Union.
In October, the parliament stripped two Golden Dawn MPs of their parliamentary immunities after they were charged with destroying property belonging to immigrants at a market near Athens.
Greeks are buckling under harsh austerity measures imposed by the troika of international lenders which engineered a massive 270 billion euro bail-out to save the country from economic meltdown.
Last month Athens announced that it will fire 4,000 civil servants this year as part of the austerity measures agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
The redundancies will begin a savage round of job cuts in the Greek public sector, with another 11,000 officials due to be sacked by the end of next year.