Greek police clash with anti-austerity protesters

Greek protesters clashed with police and set fire to cars and a hotel in central Athens on Wednesday as tens of thousands marched against austerity measures aimed at pulling the country out of a debt crisis.

Riot police responded with dozens of rounds of teargas in clashes that lasted more than an hour in the biggest and most violent march since three people died in protests in May. Police chased hooded youths who threw sticks and stones.

Hours earlier, parliament approved reforms and spending cuts that are a condition of a €110-billion ($150-billion) EU/IMF bail-out granted in May in exchange for austerity measures.

Striking public and private sector workers grounded flights, shut down schools and paralysed public transport and about 50 000 marched through the capital. Some shouted: “Revolt! Overturn government measures!”

As the march reached parliament, about 200 leftists attacked former conservative minister Kostis Hatzidakis with their fists, stones and sticks, shouting: “Thieves! Shame on you!”

His face was covered in blood as he took shelter in a building, Reuters witnesses said. Police said nine people were arrested and another 11 temporarily detained, while three were injured.

Three cars on Syntagma Square were in flames, while a fire started on the balcony of a luxury hotel after petrol bombs were thrown. Smoke and teargas covered the square and bystanders scrambled frantically to safety.

Rising anger
The 300-seat house voted into law measures that cut wages in state-owned bus and railway companies and weakened the power of collective bargaining to permit company-level deals.

“People have had enough. The anger is so great that nobody can stop it,” said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary at the civil servants’ union ADEDY, adding that the march was bigger than one in May, when 50 000 participated.

“Today is a warning for what will follow after the holidays,” he added.

Ships remained docked at ports, hospitals were working on skeleton staff and ministries shut down as civil servants and private sector workers stayed away.

With public transport crippled, major roads to the centre of Athens were jammed as motorists struggled to get to work. There was no news on TV or radio as journalists were on strike.

“With public anger mounting, the support of trade unions waning, and backing from the political opposition absent, the government is bracing for some difficult months ahead,” IHS Global Insight consultancy said in a note. “But the government’s resolve to remain on a reformist path remains intact.”

Prime Minister George Papandreou expelled a deputy from his parliamentary caucus for failing to back the government in the vote. But his Socialist party still commands a comfortable 156 votes ahead of more belt-tightening in the 2011 budget next week.

With a parliamentary majority and future bailout installments at stake, the ruling socialists are unlikely to change course although their popularity is waning amid a deepening recession.

“I can’t sit on the sofa and watch my country go down. I’m here to shout and struggle. I’m a school teacher and many of my students’ parents are jobless,” said Anastasia Antonopoulou (50) who travelled from the Ionian island of Zakynthos for the march. – Reuters

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