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May Day protesters throw stones at riot police as they try to break through barricades to reach the city's main square in central Istanbul.
May Day protesters throw stones at riot police as they try to break through barricades to reach the city's main square in central Istanbul.

Istanbul's May Day turns violent

Clashes erupt between police and protesters in Istanbul, when hundreds attempt to breach barricades and reach the main square to mark May Day in defiance of a government ban.

ISTANBUL // Clashes erupted between police and protesters in Istanbul yesterday, when hundreds tried to breach barricades and reach the main square to mark May Day in defiance of a government ban.

Some demonstrators hurled stones, petrol bombs and fireworks at riot police, who responded with tear gas as clashes broke out on side streets leading to the city's Taksim Square.

The square is Istanbul's main hub and is undergoing a major facelift. The Turkish government banned celebrations at Taksim this year, giving construction safety risks as the reason.

Trade union groups, however, vowed to mark May Day in Taksim, which is of symbolic importance to workers and left-wing groups.

Dozens of protesters were killed there in 1977 when gunmen opened fire on those celebrating May Day.

On Wednesday, subway, bus and ferry services across the Bosporus were partially suspended and bridges were closed down to prevent large groups from gathering in Taksim. About 22,000 officers were deployed to police the city.

Throngs of demonstrators, waving flags and shouting anti-government slogans, still tried to get into the square.

The Istanbul governor's office said 20 protesters were arrested and at least two policemen injured during the clashes. At least two journalists were also hurt.

The clashes in Istanbul came after three years of relatively peaceful May Day festivities.

Workers hit by lower living standards and record high unemployment also staged protests in many parts of the euro zone.

Thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, snaking up the Gran Via central shopping street, waving flags and carrying placards reading "austerity ruins and kills" and "reforms are robbery".

"The future of Spain looks terrible, we're going backwards with this government," said Alicia Candelas, 54, a former civil servant who has been jobless for two years.

The Spanish economy has shrunk for seven consecutive quarters, and unemployment stands at a record 27 per cent.

There had "never been a May 1 with more reason to take to the streets", said Candido Mendez, head of UGT, one of two main unions that called on workers and the unemployed to join more than 80 demonstrations across the country.

Trains and ferries were cancelled in Greece, and bank and hospital staff walked out after the main public and private sector unions called a 24-hour strike, the latest in a string of protests in a country in its sixth year of recession.

About 1,000 police officers were deployed in Athens, but the demonstration passed off peacefully, with about 5,000 striking workers, pensioners and students marching to parliament holding banners reading: "We won't become slaves, take to the streets!".

Earlier, hundreds of protesters affiliated with the Communist KKE party raised their arms in a clenched fist salute on Syntagma Square, scene of violent clashes between police and protesters during previous protests.

"The economy won't be resurrected by the bankrupt banks and the corrupt political system but by the workers and their fight," Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the anti-bailout Syriza party, told protesters.

"Our message today is very clear: 'Enough with these policies which hurt people and make the poor poorer,'" said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of a major public sector union.

Turnout in Greece was lower than last year when 100,000 marched on Syntagma Square. The May 1 holiday falls a few days before Greek Orthodox Easter, so public schools were shut and many workers have left for holidays.

Tens of thousands marched in Italy's major cities to demand government action to tackle unemployment, at 11.5 per cent overall and 40 per cent among the young, and an end to austerity and tax evasion. Most marches were peaceful, but demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.

Pope Francis made a May Day appeal for governments to tackle unemployment, as "work is fundamental to the dignity of a person".

"I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice," he told tens of thousands of people packed into St Peter's Square for his weekly general audience.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters

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