Nearly 1,600 arrests in Greek clampdown on immigration

A weekend police sweep in Athens led to the arrests of nearly 1,600 undocumented immigrants, officials said today as a minister claimed an "invasion of immigrants" threatened debt-choked Greece's foundations.

According to today's tallies, more than 6,000 people were questioned during the crackdown. A total of 1,595 of them were arrested and will face deportation.

Located in the southeastern extremity of the European Union, Greece is the main entry point for migrants from Asia or Africa illegally crossing into the 27-state bloc.

Greece is struggling with a crippling economic crisis and swingeing austerity cuts, leading to rising social tensions, an increase in racist attacks and support for a neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant party, which won 18 of 300 seats in June parliamentary polls.

Minister for Citizen Protection Nikos Dendias said the issue of illegal immigration was "perhaps more important than the financial problem" facing Greece.

The conservative politician told Skai radio that immigrants were "a bomb at the foundations of society and the state", and said the "invasion of immigrants" had historic importance for Greece.

Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of the socialist Pasok party, which is part of the ruling left-right coalition, said the law should be respected in Athens but worried the problem would be transferred to other towns in the north of Greece.

Several Greek media outlets said most of the immigrants had been transferred to detention centres near the border with Turkey.

The aim is "to return the undocumented immigrants to their countries of origin, close the borders ... and ensure Athens again becomes a metropolis of law and living quality," police spokesman Christos Manouras said Saturday.

Noting the police operation would continue for days, he called the eviction of illegal immigrants a "matter of national survival".

During his recent political campaign, the conservative Antonis Samaras, who is now prime minister, promised to clamp down on illegal immigration.

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