ATHENS, Greece - The leader of Greece's extreme-right Golden Dawn party and four other of its parliamentarians were formally charged Saturday with membership in a criminal organization with intent to commit crimes, in an escalation of a government crackdown after a fatal stabbing blamed on a supporter.
It was the first time since 1974 that sitting members of Parliament have been arrested. The arrests underline the Greek government's efforts to stifle the fiercely anti-immigrant party, which has been increasingly on the defensive since the killing.
Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos, party spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris and Yannis Lagos, Nikos Michos and Ilias Panayiotaros were arrested by counterterrorism police. The last two gave themselves up voluntarily. A sixth parliamentarian, Christos Pappas - described in a prosecutor's report as the Golden Dawn's No. 2 - remains at large.
Leader of the extreme far-right Golden Dawn party Nikos Michaloliakos, center, is escorted by anti-terror police as he exits Greek Police headquarters, in Athens, Saturday.
A further 15 people, including 13 Golden Dawn members and two police officers, have also been arrested and are due to appear before a prosecutor and an examining magistrate soon. They face the same charges.
Police spokesman Christos Pagonis told reporters that a total of arrest warrants were issued, all for the same charge; he added that the counterterrorism unit was still searching for the 12 suspects at large, including the missing deputy.
"It is an unprecedentedly dynamic response to a neo-Nazi organization," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told The Associated Press, hinting the arrests were the culmination of a long strategy to deal with Golden Dawn as a criminal, not a political force.
"The prime minister and the government were determined to deal with Golden Dawn solely through the justice system ... We have succeeded in stripping them of their political cover and deal with them as what they really are, a criminal organization," Kedikoglou said.
Citizen protection minister Nikos Dendias compared Golden Dawn members to German SS squads.
"The state has proven it is not helpless in the face of organized violence ... Greek society will not tolerate any storm troopers," Dendias said.
The government ordered an investigation into Golden Dawn's activities after the death of rapper Pavlos Fyssas on Sept. 18 sparked outrage across Greece. The suspect arrested over his death admitted to police that he had stabbed the 34-year-old and identified himself as a supporter of Golden Dawn. Police investigated his cellphone records and those of more than 300 people connected to Golden Dawn.
Investigations have extended to the police, which have been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to Golden Dawn violence and of mistreating immigrants.
Under existing anti-terrorism legislation, membership in a criminal organization is a flagrant crime for which the Golden Dawn deputies can be prosecuted without the parliament needing to lift their immunity.