Clashes outside Parliament as strike grips Greece

Protesters threw fire bombs at police outside Parliament on Wednesday during a general strike which paralysed Greece and piled pressure on a conservative government reeling from the worst riots in decades.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced financial support for businesses damaged in five days of rioting. He also pledged to safeguard people from violence, but did not say how.

Government sources have denied rumours emergency measures were being considered.

“Government murderers!” demonstrators shouted, furious at the shooting of a teenager by police on Saturday which sparked riots fuelled by simmering public anger at political scandals, rising unemployment and poverty.

Witnesses said the officer who fired the shot took deliberate aim, but his lawyer said on Wednesday a ballistics report showed the boy was killed by an accidental ricochet.

“The investigation shows it was a ricochet ... In the end, this was an accident,” lawyer Alexis Kougias told Reuters.
The ballistics report has not yet been officially published.

Riots have raged in at least 10 cities and the cost of damage to shops and businesses in Athens alone is estimated at about €200-million ($259-million), the Greek Commerce Confederation said.

“In Athens, we had 565 shops suffering serious damage or being completely destroyed”, said Vassilis Krokidis, vice-president of the federation.

In a televised message, Karamanlis announced subsidies, loans and tax relief measures to help those affected.

“The government is determined not only to make citizens feel safe but to support businesses which suffered damage,” he said.

Thousands marched on Parliament on Wednesday in a union rally at economic and social policy, which quickly turned violent. Police fired teargas and protesters responded with stones, bottles and sticks, a Reuters witness said.

Under Greece’s Constitution, the government can impose a ban on public assembly if it threatens public security and socio-economic life. Government sources have denied such a plan.

‘Country at a standstill’
The opposition socialist party has said the government, which has a one-seat majority and trails in opinion polls, has lost the trust of the people and has called for elections.

“Participation in the strike is total, the country has come to a standstill,” said Stathis Anestis, spokesperson for the GSEE union federation which called the 24-hour stoppage.

Foreign and domestic flights were grounded, banks and schools were shut, and hospitals ran on emergency services as hundreds of thousands of Greeks walked off the job.

Unions say privatisations, tax rises and pension reform have worsened conditions, especially for the one-fifth of Greeks who live below the poverty line, precisely at a time when the global downturn is hurting the €240-billion economy.

“There is demand for change: social, economic and political change,” said Odysseas Korakidis (25) who does two jobs. “It’s not unusual here to hold down two jobs to get just €800 or €1 000 a month. In other countries, that’s inconceivable!”

Karamanlis, who swept to power amid the euphoria of the 2004 Athens Olympics, appealed to political leaders for unity and urged unions to cancel Wednesday’s rally. But his requests were flatly rejected by the opposition.

“He and his government are responsible for the widespread crisis that the country, that Greek society is experiencing,” said socialist party spokesperson George Papakonstantinou.

‘More afraid than ever’
One policeman has been charged with murder over the shooting of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos, but has said he only fired in warning. The officer was due to appear before investigators with his colleague, who has been charged as an accomplice.

Rioting at the boy’s death began in Athens on Saturday and quickly spread across the European Union nation of 11-million people. Greeks also protested in Paris, Berlin, London, The Hague and in Cyprus.

The unrest is the worst in Greece since the aftermath of military rule in 1974.

“The death of the kid was an excuse that lit the match,” said grocery store owner Yannis Thomas (60). “Today we are more afraid than ever because of the strike.”

Wednesday’s strike by GSEE and its public sector counterpart ADEDY, which group half of Greece’s five-million-strong work force, was the latest in a series of labour protests by unions.

Many shops in central Athens stayed shut, boarding up their windows to prevent further damage. Bus stops and litter bins were blackened by fire, public telephone booths smashed and some buildings gutted by blazes.

Greece has a tradition of violence at student rallies and fire bomb attacks by anarchist groups, which have heightened tensions with police. Amnesty International, in a report on Tuesday, accused police of brutality in handling the riots.

Karamanlis has promised to compensate shopkeepers but his government already faces a big deficit. In four years of conservative rule, a series of scandals, devastating forest fires last summer, and misfired economic measures have erased the optimistic mood of the 2004 Olympics. - Reuters

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