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Street battles in Athens over spending cuts

Tens of thousands of outraged Greeks took to the streets to protest harsh new spending cuts aimed at saving their country from bankruptcy.

A demonstrator faces off with riot police near the Greek parliament in Athens during a nationwide strike in Greece, on Wednesday, May 5, 2010.
A demonstrator faces off with riot police near the Greek parliament in Athens during a nationwide strike in Greece, on Wednesday, May 5, 2010.

Protesters tried to storm Greece's parliament and hurled paving stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas today as tens of thousands of outraged Greeks took to the streets to protest harsh new spending cuts aimed at saving their country from bankruptcy. Running street battles broke out in the Greek capital, where demonstrators chanting "thieves, thieves" attempted to break through a riot police cordon guarding the parliament and chased the ceremonial guards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the building. Extensive clashes followed, with hundreds of people battering store fronts and smashing paving stones to throw at the police, who responded with stun grenades and volleys of tear gas that left clouds of the chemicals hovering over central Syntagma Square. Protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at police and at buildings. A bank on one of Athens' main avenues went up in flames, and two women trapped in the building stood on a second-floor balcony, their faces blackened with soot as firefighters attempted to reach them with ladders.

The demonstrations in Athens were some of the largest in recent years, with some estimates putting the crowd at about 60,000 people. Government officials put the number at above 25,000. Violence also broke out in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where another 20,000 people marched through the city centre, with youths smashing windows of stores and fast food restaurants. The outpouring of anger appeared much more spontaneous than the frequent set piece battles between police and anarchist youths who often spark violence during Greek demonstrations.

The marches came amid a 24-hour nationwide general strike that grounded all flights to and from Greece, shut down ports, schools and government services and left hospitals working with emergency medical staff. The Acropolis and all other ancient sites were closed, while journalists also walked off the job, suspending television and radio news broadcasts. The Greek prime minister George Papandreou on Sunday announced draconian austerity measures, including cuts in salaries and pensions for civil servants, and another round of consumer tax increases, to pull his heavily indebted country away from the brink of default. Union reaction until now had been relatively muted by Greece's volatile standards, although the country has been hit by a series of strikes. The opposition conservatives - whom Mr Papandreou's Socialists have blamed for mismanaging the economy and fudging statistics during their five years in power - trail the Socialists by 10 percentage points in recent opinion polls.

But anger has mounted after the announcement of new austerity measures, which were essential to unlock a ?110 billion (Dh523bn) rescue package in loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel urged parliament to quickly pass the country's share of at keep Greece from defaulting and preventing Athens' debt crisis from becoming a wider crisis for the euro by engulfing other financially troubled countries such as Spain and Portugal.

Skepticism that the plan would accomplish that goal of preventing market contagion sent the euro below US$1.30 (Dh3) for the first time in over a year. Germany, as Europe's largest economy, will provide ?8.4bn in 2010 and up to ?14bn more over 2011 and 2012 according to the plan. "Nothing less than the future of Europe, and with that the future of Germany in Europe, is at stake," Ms Merkel told politicians. "We are at a fork in the road."

Greek unions concede that the cash-strapped government was forced to increase consumer taxes and slash spending, including cutting salaries and pensions for civil servants, to secure a vital ?110bn three-year loan package from European partners and the International Monetary Fund. But they say low-income Greeks will suffer disproportionately from the measures, which aim to save ?30bn - the country's current budget deficit - through 2012.

"These people are losing their rights, they are losing their future," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of GSEE, one of the two largest union organisations. "The country cannot surrender without a fight."

* AP