Athens (AFP) - Greek riot police stormed the headquarters of former public broadcaster ERT in a pre-dawn raid on Thursday, forcibly removing employees who had been occupying the site since its shock shutdown five months ago.
ERT's closure in June sparked an international outcry and nearly brought down the coalition government in debt-laden Greece, which has been implementing painful public-sector restructuring in return for international bailout loans.
Thursday's police raid is likely to cause more outrage in the country, which in January assumes the helm of the European Union's rotating six-month presidency.
"The police operation at the public broadcaster's headquarters was carried out to implement the law and restore order," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said in a statement.
"The ERT building was under illegal occupation, with resulting daily losses for the Greek state. The police intervened in the presence of a prosecutor," Kedikoglou said.
Riot police jumped over fences and burst open locks as they stormed the building in the northern Athens suburb of Aghia Paraskevi in the early hours, going room-to-room to clear the premises, witnesses said.
Dozens of people were escorted out of the building and four were briefly detained, including the head of ERT staff union Pospert, Panagiotis Kalfagiannis, said another staff representative, Nikos Tsimbidas.
"Around 70 people were in the building at the time, but I cannot be sure because they did not allow us to regroup," Tsimbidas, who was manning the airwaves at the time, told AFP.
"From what I saw from the cameras they broke the lock of the main entrance at 4:20 am (0220 GMT)," said ERT security guard Nikos Kounoupis.
"They started jumping in from the metal gates from the sides. They also broke the door of the side entrance. They started running inside."
Refusing to accept their dismissal, former employees have been maintaining rogue broadcasts from the occupied headquarters, while an interim TV station, DT (Public Television), has been airing from a nearby studio since mid-July.
"Welcome, Middle Ages," Tsimbidas said in his final radio broadcast.
"I hope someone is recording this. It?s really shocking to be on the microphone with two squads of riot police outside the studio," Tsimbidas said before he was escorted outside.
Some 300 protesters quickly gathered outside the building as news of the operation spread, but were pushed back some 100 metres by police.
"This was my home, my family," lamented Virginia, a 54-year-old former ERT journalist.
The evacuation was a "second death" after the broadcaster's shutdown in June, she said.
ERT employees called for more people to protest the forced evacuation.
"We ask everyone to come to the ERT headquarters," said a statement issued shortly after the start of the raid.
In October the government had said the continued occupation of ERT's headquarters was unacceptable because it could jeopardise coverage of Greece's EU presidency, which begins in January.
"(The occupation) is a problem that has to be dealt with," Pantelis Kapsis, the deputy minister responsible for public television, said at the time.
"If the (new) public broadcaster cannot be housed soon in Aghia Paraskevi, it risks not being able to cover Greece's EU presidency," he said.
Disgruntled former employees have been occupying the building since the government's shutdown of ERT on June 11, which made some 2,600 people redundant overnight.
The closure caused an international outcry and nearly brought down the coalition government of conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras after one of its allies defected over the row.
The government defended the shutdown, saying ERT had become a bloated, ineffective organisation that cost up to 300 million euros ($ 406 million) annually.
It said it would be replaced with a new public broadcaster, Nerit, which was expected to go online in 2014.
The debt-racked country, which has depended on international rescue loans for its economic survival since 2010, has promised its EU-IMF creditors it will axe 4,000 state jobs and place 25,000 civil servants on a redeployment scheme by the end of the year.