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Greek Rioters Clash With Police as 10,000 Protesters Take to the Streets
Protesters clashed with riot police as more than 10,000 people marched through central Athens during a nationwide general strike against the government's harsh new austerity measures.
The strike grounded all flights and brought public transport to a halt. State hospitals were left with emergency staff only and all news broadcasts were suspended as workers walked off the job for 24 hours to protest spending cuts and tax hikes designed to tackle the country's debt crisis.
Riot police fired tear gas to disperse rock-throwing protesters at one point of the demonstration as more than 10,000 strikers and protesters marched through central Athens, banging drums and chanting slogans such as "no sacrifice for plutocracy," and "real jobs, higher pay." People draped banners from apartment buildings reading: "No more sacrifices, war against war."
The demonstrators included a group of about 100 youths wearing crash helmets and ski masks, some of whom smashed windows of a department store and bank, and sprayed riot police with brown paint. Shopkeepers along the demonstration route scrambled to roll down their shutters, while a few blocks away, people sat at outdoor restaurants, continuing their meals.
Fears of a Greek default have undermined the euro for all 16 countries that share it, putting the Greek government under intense European Union pressure to quickly show fiscal improvement.
It has announced an additional 4.8 billion euro (£4.4 billion) in savings through public sector salary cuts, hiring and pension freezes and consumer tax hikes to deal with its ballooning deficit, but the measures have led to a new wave of labour discontent.
The cutbacks, added to a previous 11.2 billion euro (£10.2 billion) austerity plan, seek to reduce the country's budget deficit from 12.7 per cent of annual output to 8.7 per cent this year. The long-term target is to bring overspending below the EU ceiling of 3 per cent of GDP in 2012.
The new plan sparked a wave of strikes and protests from labour unions whose reaction to the initial austerity measures had been muted. Thursday's strike was the second major walkout in a week, shutting down all public services and schools, leaving ferries tied up at port and suspending all news broadcasts for the day. However, some private bank branches were open despite calls from the bank employees' union to participate in the strike.
While their colleagues clashed with groups of protesters, some police joined the demonstration.
About 200 uniformed police, coast guard and fire brigade officers, who cannot go on strike but can hold protests, gathered at a square in the centre of the city shortly before the marches got under way.
"The police and other security forces have been particularly hard hit by the new measures because our salaries are very low," said Yiannis Fanariotis, general secretary of one police association. He said the average policeman made about 1,200 euros (£1,000) a month if weekend and night shifts were included.
Joining the protest "doesn't feel strange, because we are working people like everybody else and we are all shouting out for our rights," he said.
The government says the tough cuts are its only way to dig Greece out of a crisis that has hammered the common European currency and alarmed international markets - inflating the loan-dependent country's borrowing costs.
But unions say ordinary Greeks are being called to pay a disproportionate price for past fiscal mismanagement.
"They are trying to make workers pay the price for this crisis," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE.
"These measures will not be effective and will throw the economy into deep freeze."
A general strike last Friday was marred by violence during a large protest march. Riot police used tear gas and baton charges against rock-throwing protesters, who smashed banks and storefronts.
The unrest could spark fears that the government will have trouble in implementing its new measures.
Greece insists it doesn't need a bail-out, and its European partners are reluctant to fund one. But it has called for European and international support for its program, saying that unless it receives that support and the cost for it to borrow on the market falls, it might have to appeal to the International Monetary Fund for help.