UPDATE: (2:45 PM EST)
The Guardian's Helena Smith reports:
Hundreds of thousands of anti-austerity protesters took to the streets of Greece on Wednesday as the country was paralysed by a general strike in the first mass confrontation with Athens's three-month-old coalition government.
In one of the biggest demonstrations in the capital in recent years, as many as 200,000 marched on the Greek parliament, according to unions in the public and private sector, which called the strike to oppose new wage and pension cuts – the price of further rescue funds from international lenders.
Clashes broke out between riot police and hooded youths hurling rocks and petrol bombs at the finance ministry. The protesters, many shouting: "We can take no more. Out with the EU and IMF," and said to be part of the crisis-hit country's vibrant "anti-establishment" movement, then set light to rubbish cans and bus stops, sending plumes of acrid smoke above the capital. TV footage showed demonstrators running for cover in Syntagma Square, seat of the Greek parliament, as noxious fumes filled the air. More than 100 people were detained.
"This is a warning to the government not to pass the measures," said Ilias Iliopoulos at ADEDY, the union of civil servants, insisting that around 350,000 Greeks took part in protest marches nationwide (police put the number in Athens at around 70,000). "Today was a huge success as witnessed by all those in the armed forces and police who also participated because they, too, will be affected by these cuts. The government must know that if it wants to push us further into a corner, we will react."
Echoing a view held by many Greeks, Penelope Angelou, an unemployed mother, said passing the measures would be tantamount to a "parliamentary coup".
"These parties were given our vote back in June because they promised to re-negotiate the terms of the loan agreement," she said, referring to the onerous conditions of the bailout accord Athens signed with its "troika" of creditors — the EU, ECB and IMF – earlier this year. "We are all tired," she said. "This is the third year of non-stop cuts and tax increases which have made us poor and divided us as a society. And they have not solved our problem. The recession is going from bad to worse."
AP provided this footage from afternoon clashes between angry demonstrators and police:
As a general strike took hold across Greece on Wednesday, tens of thousands gathered in central Athens and marched on parliament as the conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras receives its first taste of large-scale popular unrest in response to its push for deeper austerity cuts designed to satisfy EU and IMF lenders.
The people, mostly union workers, shouted "We won't submit to the troika!" and "EU, IMF Out!"
The troika—which includes the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the IMF—has demanded still deeper cuts to Greek society for its release of a new tranche of bailout funding. More than 3,000 armed security personnel greeted that marchers along their route and violent clashes have been reported throughout Athens.
The Guardian reports:
Ships will stay docked, shops have pulled down shutters, and museums and monuments will be closed to visitors throughout the day. Air traffic controllers are to walk off the job for three hours and hospitals will operate on emergency staff.
Even tax collectors have said they will join in the action which has also closed archaeological sites, including the ancient Acropolis.
The general strike was called by the country's biggest private sector unions, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) and the union of civil servants (ADEDY). Backing the day of demonstrations were members of the KKE communist party and the leftist coalition of SYRIZA.
The rally marched past Athens' central Syntagma square to parliament to protest where specific ire was focused on a new plan to cut nearly $15 billion from wages, pensions and welfare benefits.
"The new measures are unbearable," said Costas Tsikrikas, leader of the publics workers union. "We are determined to fight until we win."
"We can't take it anymore - we are bleeding. We can't raise our children like this," 54-year-old teacher and mother of four Dina Kokou told Reuters.
"These tax hikes and wage cuts are killing us."
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the SYRIZA party that came in second to Samaras in the most recent election and has gathered growing political strength for its continued resistance to the austerity path, said recently that the coalition government, with its continued submission to Europe's central bankers, was leading Greece towards "disaster".
According to the Greek Reporter:
Speaking to reporters at the Thessaloniki International Fair [last week], an event that Samaras ducked, the Leftist leader said that, “We are being led into a drawn-out ordeal. The climate is changing, but for the worse and if the government does eventually succeed in passing the measures for 11.5 billion euros ($15.55 billion) it will have little chance of longevity.”
He said Samaras was looking for a “golden mean” with the Troika by requesting a two-year extension to the period during which it has committed to implementing a series of painful cost-cutting and structural reform measures in exchange for bailout funding. “But all it will do is make the rope with which we hang ourselves longer,” Tsipras said. “What is important to us is that we do not continue down the slippery slope of disaster,” he added.
Tsipras cautioned however, that he has no panacea and said if SYRIZA took over that, “The road will not be paved with a red carpet and rose petals,” adding that “No one will be saved by placing their hopes on SYRIZA to save them; we can all be saved together if we take our fates into our own hands,” he said, urging mass public protests against the planned measures.
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