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Anti-Austerity Protest In Greece Turns Violent

PTI 16 Dec 2010, 9:16:19 IST
Athens, Dec 15 : Hundreds of youths clashed with the police outside Parliament and other central landmarks, smashing store facades, setting fire to garbage dumpsters and prompting officers to fire stun grenades and unleash thick clouds of tear gas that sent Athenians and tourists scurrying into side streets with their eyes streaming.

The walkout —Greece's seventh general strike this year — grounded flights, kept ferries in ports, halted train services and shut down government offices and schools while leaving hospitals to operate on emergency staffing and causing a news blackout as journalists joined the action. Public transport was operating for most of the day to enable Athenians to attend demonstrations in the city center.

Around 20,000 people answered the call of unions representing civil servants, private sector workers and the Communist Party for three separate demonstrations. The rallies were mostly peaceful until the early afternoon, when self-styled anarchists broke off from the crowd and attacked the police with firebombs and chunks of stone torn up from sidewalks.

Tensions peaked outside Parliament, where late on Tuesday night Greek lawmakers voted through new laws cutting wages and jobs at debt-ridden public companies and watering down legislation protecting workers' rights.

Despite vehement protests by opposition parties and objections by some backbenchers of the ruling Socialist party, the new bill passed smoothly into law as the government retains a comfortable majority in Greece's 300-seat Parliament. The reforms are the latest raft of austerity measures demanded by Greece's European Union partners and the IMF in exchange for a Euro 110 billion rescue package granted to the debt-ridden country in May.

Opposition to the measures, and to the pressure being applied by the country's international creditors, was clear in the streets on Wednesday. Angry protesters wielded placards reading “IMF out!” and “Let us not live as slaves!” while others chanted “Thieves, thieves!” and “Shame on you!” to unseen deputies in Parliament.

At one point a conservative opposition MP and former minister, Costis Hatzidakis, spotted near the Parliament building, was chased by a group of around 100 angry protesters who pelted him with stones. The 45-year-old deputy emerged from the encounter with a few grazes after officers intervened and escorted him to safety, said a police spokesman, Thanassis Kokkalakis.

Mr. Kokkalakis said that “several” people had been detained for questioning in Athens and in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. “The clashes are ongoing; it's not over yet,” he said.

As dusk fell and tear gas lingered in the air, police helicopters circled over Parliament, where rows of police officers in gas masks and shields stood guard. “This is unacceptable — it's worse than the junta,” said Giorgos Papageorgiou, a 52-year-old factory worker, referring to a seven-year military dictatorship in Greece that fell in 1974. Mr. Papageorgiou said the new law voted through Parliament would lower his monthly wage to ¤700 from ¤1,000 and make it harder for him to support his wife, who does not work, and their teenage daughter.

“Is this the democracy we fought for?” said Mr. Papageorgiou, wiping the white chalky remnants of tear gas from his face. “This is fascism.” AP