ATHENS — Riot police made heavy use of tear gas and stun grenades to disperse youths throwing stones and petrol bombs at a large march through central Athens Wednesday to protest the Greek government's harsh austerity measures.
The clashes came during a 24-hour general strike that brought most public services to a halt, suspended all train and ferry services, grounded flights for four hours and disrupted public transport.
An Associated Press reporter saw at least three demonstrators injured and another five detained by police, while dozens of black-clad anarchists smashed bus stops, set rubbish bins on fire and smashed a shop window.
The fighting divided the 40,000 strong march — which was otherwise peaceful — into two. At one stage, choking clouds of chemicals fired by police sent demonstrators and tourists scurrying for cover past shops and banks that had their fronts shuttered in anticipation of trouble.
Several thousand people — some chanting "Finance Minister, leave the planet" — took part in the demonstration called by the two main labour unions. Previous protests have also been marred by violence, and three clerks died last May when their bank was torched by rioters.
Earlier, about 10,000 members of the Communist-led PAME union held a peaceful protest, with banners reading "We reject and condemn the new measures. We're intensifying the fight."
"Every day that passes, (the government) takes back what the working class has won through blood and struggles all these years," retiree John Pavlidis said.
Another 8,000 people joined in two separate protests in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Greece's crisis follows years of inept governance, widespread corruption and waste that created bloated budget deficits and a public debt considerably larger than annual economic output. For the time being, the country is shielded from insolvency by a euro110 billion ($158 billion) package of rescue loans in a 2010-2013 program from its European Union partners and International Monetary Fund.
But despite drastic spending cuts — with reductions to pensions and salaries accompanied by an increase in taxes and retirement ages — the nation may need additional support to meet its financing needs next year, as the cost of borrowing from bond markets remains sky-high.
Parliament is expected to vote on the new round of cutbacks later this month. The governing Socialists have also committed themselves to an ambitious — but so far nebulous — privatization program worth a total of euro50 billion ($72 billion) over the next few years.
However, many promised reforms have not yet been implemented, and there is growing skepticism in Greece and abroad over the government's efficiency.
"Before we can talk about further aid, Greece has to make sure that all austerity and reform measures are duly implemented," said Michael Meister, a deputy caucus leader of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party.
"I would like to have a signal that this is finally happening," the lawmaker told Wednesday's German Rheinische Post daily.
EU and IMF officials are currently in Athens for talks on the austerity program — on which the continued release of the bailout loans depends.
Greek unions say the protracted austerity, amid a two-year recession and unemployment at around 15 per cent, is unfairly targeting the less well-off.
"The only people paying the bill are salary earners, pensions and above all the unemployed," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the country's largest union, the GSEE. "The well-off, who are the main people to blame for the crisis, continue to drink the health of the mugs."
"If what our country is undergoing is a marathon, then workers must respond with marathon struggles."
An opinion poll commissioned by the private Mega TV station and published Tuesday said 71 per cent of the public oppose the government's handling of the economic crisis, compared with 66 per cent in February.
The Socialists' 18-month-old government held a slender lead over the main opposition conservatives. Details on the number of people questioned in the poll and its margin of error were not provided.