By Harry Papachristou
ATHENS, June 27 (Reuters) - Gunmen driving a van packed with gas canisters firebombed the Athens headquarters of Microsoft on Wednesday, underscoring the threat of instability as Greece asks for more time and less hardship in cutting its crippling debt.
Fire gutted the ground floor of the blue four-storey HQ of the U.S. software giant, blackening its walls with flames, on the eve of yet another European summit seeking a solution to a regional debt crisis first unleashed by Greece.
At least two attackers were involved in the sophisticated assault at 4.45 a.m. (0145 GMT) in Maroussi, a northern suburb of the sprawling Greek capital, police said.
Brandishing pistols and an automatic rifle, they kept security guards at bay and set fire to the van carrying three gas canisters and five cans of gasoline. No one was hurt in the early morning assault.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility and police said it was too early to say who was to blame. Suspicion, however, fell on left-wing militants, who have a long and violent history in Greece. Anti-terrorist units were investigating the incident.
Since the end of a military dictatorship in 1974, Greece has been scarred by political violence and assassination, much of it carried out by the militant November 17 group, named after a student uprising which was bloodily suppressed by the army.
Authorities have dismantled the group, whose victims included the CIA station chief in Athens, but splinter organisations committed to the same radical left-wing or anarchist ideals remain active.
Social tensions are rising in Greece over the harsh terms of an international bailout saving the country from bankruptcy but only at the cost of deep economic suffering.
Branches of Macdonald's, Citi and Starbucks in Athens have been set on fire by protesters and militants in the past using petrol bombs or gas canisters.
The attacks usually take place at night and there have rarely been injuries, but three bank staff suffocated in May 2010 when protesters set their branch on fire during a protest march in central Athens.
The assault on Microsoft is a new headache for big multi-nationals in Athens already considering quitting the debt-ridden country because of unpaid bills, falling revenues and the prospect that Greece might be forced to leave the euro.
"They entered the office in a van ... in an effort to burn the whole place down," Ernst-Jan Stigter, general manager of Microsoft's Greek unit, told reporters on Wednesday. "We're grateful there were no injuries and all our crew is safe."
The fire department estimated the damage at about 60,000 euros ($75,000). Staff were told not to come to work.
Contacted by Reuters, Citibank, Coca-Cola and pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline said they had no immediate plans to step up security, which has already been tightened after violent protests seen previously in Athens.
NO QUICK RESPITE
The Greek government is unlikely to win any immediate respite from the bailout conditions at a two-day summit of EU leaders starting on Thursday whose chances of making a decisive response to the debt crisis are rated as low.
The harsh conditions attached to a 130-billion-euro ($162.12 billion) lifeline from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, on top of 110 billion in 2010, have helped condemn Greece to five years of record-breaking recession that have enraged the population.
Greeks argue that the cuts in jobs, wages and pensions demanded by lenders have spared a corrupt, tax-evading elite and heaped an unfair burden on the poorest sections of society.
The streets of Athens are scarred by repeated bouts of violent protest. Banks, fast-food chains and government ministries have been targeted in arson or bomb attacks.
Responding to huge public pressure after a June 17 election, conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called for tax cuts, extra help for the poor and jobless, a freeze on public sector lay-offs and two more years to bring Greece's deficit under control.
He will miss the two-day EU summit after undergoing eye surgery on Saturday. Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said the prime minister would send a letter to EU leaders calling for "a different approach".
"It will assure them that we will honour our commitments and that we want to meet the fiscal consolidation targets, a balanced budget and other targets included in the accord with our European partners," Kedikoglou told 9.84 radio.
But, he added, "Our experience over the past two years shows that the recipe has brought a rapid rise in unemployment and a deepening recession. Accordingly, they have to let us try a different approach. We are seeking room for growth."
Fast losing patience with the slow pace of reform and a litany of broken promises, the country's euro zone partners, led by paymaster Germany, are reluctant to give more leeway.
The Greek wish-list goes far beyond the "adjustments" offered by euro zone partners to make up for weeks of paralysis during two elections since May and a deeper than expected recession.
All sides have played down prospects for any meaningful progress on Greece at the summit, and Athens says it will take its case to European capitals and Washington once Samaras has recovered from surgery to repair a damaged retina.
Greece's delegation to the summit will be led by 83-year-old President Karolos Papoulias. An aide, who declined to be named, said the president would fly economy class.