x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Firebombs fly in Athens in clashes over austerity measures

More than 30,000 demonstrators attend Athens rally as 24-hour strike halts trains, ferries and most public transport across Greece.

A policeman is seen in flames as he tries to escape after a petrol bomb was thrown at him during riots in front of the parliament in Athens on February 23, 2011. Greece is hit with another general strike against austerity as Prime Minister George Papandreou seeks to convince the cash-strapped country's eurozone partners to extend the repayment of a massive rescue loan. AFP PHOTO/ Angelos Tzortzinis
A policeman is seen in flames as he tries to escape after a petrol bomb was thrown at him during riots in front of the parliament in Athens on February 23, 2011. Greece is hit with another general strike against austerity as Prime Minister George Papandreou seeks to convince the cash-strapped country's eurozone partners to extend the repayment of a massive rescue loan. AFP PHOTO/ Angelos Tzortzinis

ATHENS // Young demonstrators hurled rocks and fire bombs at riot police as clashes broke out today in Athens during a mass rally against austerity measures, part of a general strike that crippled services and public transportation around the country.

Police fired tear gas and flash grenades at protesters, blanketing parts of the city centre in choking smoke. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators ran to side streets to take cover. A police officer was attacked and his uniform caught fire in the city's main Syntagma Square, and his motorcycle was burned.

At least two people were injured and another three arrested. One group of rioting youths smashed paving stones in front of the central Bank of Greece, but there were no immediate reports of any serious damage.

More than 30,000 protesters attended the Athens rally, which had been calm before the clashes. Demonstrators chanting "Don't obey the rich - fight back!" marched to parliament as the city centre was heavily policed. A brass band, tractors and cyclists joined the rally.

The rally was part of Greece's first major labour protest this year as Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialist government faces international pressure to make more lasting cuts after the nation's debt-crippled economy was rescued from bankruptcy by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The 24-hour strike halted trains, ferries and most public transport across the country, and led to the cancellation of more than 100 flights at Athens International Airport. The strike also the closed the Acropolis and other major tourist sites.

State hospital doctors, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, lawyers and tax collectors joined school teachers, journalists and thousands of small businesses as more middle-class groups took part in the protest than have in the past. Athens' main shopping district was mostly empty, as many small business owners kept their stores closed.

Unions are angry at the austerity measures put in place by the Socialist government in exchange for a €110 billion (Dh555bn)) bailout loan package from European countries and the IMF.

Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE, said workers should not be asked to make more sacrifices during a third straight year of recession.

"The measures forced on us by the agreement with our lenders are harsh and unfair. We are facing long-term austerity with high unemployment and destabilising our social structure," Mr Anestis told The Associated Press. "What is increasing is the level of anger and desperation. If these harsh policies continue, so will we."

Elsewhere, about 15,000 people rallied and minor scuffles broke out in Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki, while Mr Anestis said around 60 demonstrations were being planned in cities and towns across Greece. He said the GSEE was in talks with European labour unions to try and coordinate future strikes with other EU countries.

Earlier this month, international debt monitors said Greece needed a "significant acceleration" of long-term reforms to avoid missing its economic targets. It also urged the Socialist government to embark on a €50 bn privatisation programme to pay for some of its mounting national debt, which is set to exceed 150 per cent of GDP this year.

The IMF has said some of the frequent demonstrations against the Greek government's reforms were being carried out by groups angry at losing their "unfair advantages and privileges".