Sunday, 9 May 2010

Three killed as Greek austerity protest turns violent

Times Online, May 5, 2010

Three people were killed in a firebomb attack on a bank in central Athens today as protests against the Greek Government turned into violent riots.

Buildings and cars were set alight and burning barricades set up in the streets by demonstrators angry at proposed austerity measures.

Two women and one man died in the blaze after hooded demonstrators hurled a petrol bomb into the bank in the centre of the capital. It is not clear whether the victims were customers or worked at the site. Employees covered in ash fled the burning building, which was destroyed.

Demonstrators chanting “thieves, robbers” attempted to storm the Greek parliament while riot police used teargas against tens of thousands of protesters. Rioters hacked marble from buildings to use as missiles against heavily armed police.

The violence came in the midst of a 48-hour general strike that paralysed the country, causing travel disruption and closing schools and hospitals.

Thousands of civil servants and private sector workers marched under large banners urging Greeks to defy the strictures of the International Monetary Fund and protesting against what they called a catastrophic rollback of workers’ rights.

There was a news blackout after the politically powerful journalists’ unions joined the strike.

Greek stocks plunged by more than 5 per cent in late trading after sharp falls on European markets.

The ATHEX index of leading Greek stocks was showing a fall of 5.40 per cent at 1,633.26 points with about an hour left of trading.

Unions claim that spending cuts and tax rises, proposed in return for £95 billion in loans to the Government, target the poor.

Parliament will vote on the package tomorrow.

The proposals include pension cuts and wage freezes. The aim is to cut Greece’s public deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP by 2014 — today it stands at 13.6 per cent.

The proposed package includes cuts worth €30 billion (£26 billion) over three years.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, urged MPs to back the emergency loan package agreed by EU finance ministers. Germany would be required to pay the largest part of the loans.

“Quite simply, Europe’s future is at stake,” she said. The destiny of the EU and Germany’s place in it depended on the outcome of the Greek crisis, she added.

George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister who marks seven months in power this week, has vowed to keep the IMF-mandated austerity programme in place “without regard to political cost”.

However the left-wing parties and the main unions have been equally adamant that they will oppose the cuts, raising serious issues about Greece’s governability in the coming months.

Antonis Samaras, the leader of the opposition conservative New Democracy Party, added to the uncertainty this week by saying that his party would vote down the austerity programme when it comes up for a vote in the parliament today.

The Government’s 165-strong majority in the 300-seat chamber, however, ensures that the package will pass.
Rallies started shortly before midday during the third general strike among public sector workers in as many months. Workers fear that the cuts will bring financial pain but fail to remedy the chronic debt.

Although polls show that most Greeks disagree with the austerity measures, demonstrations until now have been limited and mainly peaceful.

Flights to and from Greece were suspended at midnight and trains and ferries were not running this morning.

About 10,000 protesters from the main public and private sector unions massed in the capital while the PAME communist union drew another 10,000 people.

Protesters carried banners reading “IMF and EU are stealing a century of social progress” and “The rich must pay for the crisis”.

In Greece’s second city in the north of the country, Thessaloniki, about 20,000 people gathered to protest. Youths smashed windows of stores and fast food restaurants in an outpouring of anger that appeared more spontaneous than the set-piece battles between police and anarchist youths that are common at most Greek demonstrations.

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