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Athens - Hundreds of anti-American protesters battled baton-wielding riot police and set stores and banks ablaze as US President Bill Clinton rode through Athens in a tight security cocoon and proclaimed a "profound and enduring friendship" with Greece.
The riots on Friday were the most violent in downtown Athens in several years - and the worst of any of Clinton's overseas trips. The president, asked about the protests early on Saturday as he toured the Acropolis with his daughter, Chelsea, said simply, "I'm sorry about it."
Clinton, at an elegant dinner at the presidential palace a few blocks from the clashes, toasted Greece as an ally in every major international conflict of this century.
"If some engage us in passionate debate," the president said, "it is well to remember how hard both our countries have fought to do just that."
The violence erupted from bands of leftists and anarchists among more than 10 000 demonstrators blocked from marching on the US Embassy in central Athens. Police hurled tear gas canisters at protesters who set up fiery roadblocks and hurled paving stones and cement flower pots.
Clinton saw none of the unrest - broadcast live on television. Warmly greeted at the airport, he rode into town on police-lined streets that had been cleared of all traffic hours before. Clusters of onlookers watched impassively as his entourage rode by.
Black, acrid smoke hung over many parts of the city center near the parliament building, known by many tourists for the ceremonial guards dressed in traditional white pleated skirts.
"I have come here as a 'fili mou' - a friend of Greece," the president said. "Through this visit, I want the American people to see the changing face of Greece, the powerhouse of southeast Europe."
Clinton's wife, Hillary, daughter Chelsea, and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright all were presented with bouquets of flowers as they walked down the red carpet from Air Force One.
At the state dinner with President Constantinos Stephanopoulos, Clinton said Greece and the United States "have forged a profound and enduring friendship" over the last 180 years.
"As in all friendships," Clinton said, "we have not always agreed but we have never broken ranks, because of our shared devotion to democracy and freedom."
But anti-American sentiment runs deep, from old-guard communists to Christian Orthodox activists. Many Greeks believe the United States favors regional rival Turkey in territorial disputes and war-divided Cyprus. Greeks also were angered by the US-led bombing against Yugoslavia. Moreover, there are bitter memories of US support for the old Greek military junta that crushed a student uprising in 1973.
Clinton's primary objective here was to promote reconciliation between Greece and Turkey, particularly on Cyprus. He raised the issue repeatedly during a five-day visit to Turkey before flying here.
Stephanopoulos staked out a tough line. "We face no problems other than those created by the aggressive policies of Turkey," he told Clinton at the dinner. He said Cyprus "is a problem which was created by Turkey's military invasion of the island" in 1974 - after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Stephanopoulos expressed concern that Greece would be forced to make all the concessions in Cyprus negotiations.
The Greek government, embarrassed by the president's reception, described the protests as the work of a minority that doesn't represent the views of ordinary Greeks. The government also endorsed the response of the police in containing the violence after ordering the closing of most main streets to marches. It was the toughest restriction on demonstrations since the end of military rule 25 years ago.
More than 60 stores and banks were damaged, police said. Hooded and masked demonstrators set afire piles of garbage, much of it hauled from huge rubbish piles that collected during a five-day garbage collectors' strike.
At least 16 people were injured and more than 40 people were detained by police.
The Greek Communist Party organized the rally to protest Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia. It called on supporters to go home as violence spread.
Concluding a five-day stay in Turkey, Clinton told reporters earlier in Istanbul he was not concerned about the protests. "Greece is the world's oldest democracy," he said. "If people want to protest, they should have a chance to do it."
Clinton said the protests don't bother him because Greece and the United States have been "great allies" despite widespread opposition in Greece to the Nato-led mission in Yugoslavia. The president had postponed and shortened his visit because of security worries.
"They have a right to their opinion and I have a right to mine," Clinton said. "I believe I was right, and I think that the facts will prove that I was right." - Sapa-AP