NEW YORK — Greece's prime minister said Monday his government will do "whatever it takes" to completely eradicate the extreme-right Golden Dawn party, whose neo-Nazi leaders have just been arrested.
Antonis Samaras said the Greek people "are very smart" and are now seeing the party for what it really is.
"I believe that they will realize that they should not follow the party that has such extreme ideological positions and ideas," he told a meeting in New York of AJC, the American Jewish Committee, which advocates globally on Jewish issues.
Samaras, in New York to attend the U.N. annual meeting of world leaders, added that he does not believe the party will return with greater popularity because its leaders will be viewed as victims or martyrs. Golden Dawn's approach and thinking about politics is "so negative" and "so hideous ... (and) so catastrophic to Greeks and Greece that I do not believe they might come back," he said.
Golden Dawn, a formerly fringe nationalist group with neo-Nazi roots that started in the late 1980s, enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity during Greece's financial crisis which began about six years ago. They won 18 seats in the 300-member Parliament in the 2012 election.
Since the election, Golden Dawn has been blamed for numerous violent attacks, mostly against dark-skinned immigrants but also against gays and left-wing activists. The party has been increasingly on the defensive since the Sept. 17 fatal stabbing of a left-wing Greek activist rapper, blamed on a Golden Dawn supporter. Though the party has vehemently denied any role in the killing, it has appeared to dent its appeal among Greeks and apparently sparked the current government crackdown.
Several of the 100 invited guests at Samaras' speech expressed concern at Golden Dawn's anti-Semitic and fierce anti-immigrant stance, and the crowd loudly applauded his pledge to crack down on the party.
"We are dedicated (to) completely eradicating such a shame," he said. "There is no room for the neo-Nazis in any part of the democratic world, and there is no tolerance for the neo-Nazis, or for any kind of extremism, undermining democratic institutions."
On Saturday, police counterterrorism units started arresting key Golden Dawn leaders and by Monday, six lawmakers – including the party's top two officials – 14 other members and two police officers with alleged sympathies had been arrested. Warrants have been issued for 10 more people.
The crackdown marks the first time since the 1974 restoration of democracy after a military dictatorship that sitting members of a Greek parliament have been arrested.
On several occasions in his speech and the questions that followed, Samaras used the word "deracinate" – meaning uproot or eradicate – to describe his government's goal. He said Greek authorities reacted decisively in "identifying the culprits" of alleged crimes by Golden Dawn leaders and those "who possibly stand behind them."
The judicial system is now in charge – not the government and it will "take care of them" and it "will deracinate this phenomenon from Greece," he said.
As for the government, Samaras said: "We are going to do everything we can for the justice system to do exactly what it has to do, and I think they started correctly and will finish in the best way."
The Greek leader stressed the link between New Dawn's rise and Greece's depression, which has erased about 25 percent of Greece's gross domestic product and sent unemployment as high as 27 percent. Youth unemployment skyrocketed to more than 60 percent.
Despite the standard of living dropping by about 40 percent, which hasn't happened anywhere in the post-World War II era, Samaras said, "the Greek people showed maturity, resilience and determination and we now have started to ascend, getting up step-by-step out of the worst part of the crisis."
He stressed that the people who voted for Golden Dawn were not neo-Nazis.
"The heads of the group are neo-Nazis," he said. But their supporters were reacting to the terrible times that Greece went through.
"I would never call the people who voted for them neo-Nazis," he said.
Samaras stressed that the arrest of the Golden Dawn supporters was a first in Europe, but he said other countries in the region are facing people with similar ideologies.
"What to me is important is to deracinate totally this group, and the only way you can do it is when unemployment will start falling," he said.
"That's what we're planning to do, and hopefully this will be done, and this will establish a precedent ... for the rest of Europe."
With 18 lawmakers in the 300-member Parliament, the Golden Dawn is slated to receive more than 873,000 euros ($1.18 million) in 2013.
The Greek government submitted draft legislation to Parliament late Monday aimed at cutting state funding to the party. The proposed legislation would suspend state funding for a party if any members of its leadership or lawmakers are being prosecuted for felonies.
"Democracy cannot fund its rivals," said Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos. "When you have a criminal organization which is operating inside a political party, there must be sanctions regarding funding."
Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Elena Becatoros contributed to this report from Athens.