Strikes, Rioting, in Greece

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek protesters clashed with police and set fire to cars and a hotel in central Athens on Wednesday as tens of thousands marched against austerity measures aimed at pulling the country out of a debt crisis.

Riot police answered with dozens of rounds of teargas in clashes that lasted more than an hour, with police chasing hooded youths who threw sticks and stones.

Hours earlier, parliament approved reforms and spending cuts that are a condition of a 110-billion-euro ($150-billion) EU/IMF bailout, offered to Greece in exchange for austerity measures.

Striking public and private sector workers had already grounded flights, shut down schools and paralyzed public transport and about 40,000 marched through the capital. Some shouted: “Revolt! Overturn government measures!”

As the march reached parliament, about 200 leftists attacked former conservative minister Kostis Hatzidakis with their fists, stones and sticks, shouting: “Thieves! Shame on you!”

Reuters witnesses said his face was covered in blood as he took shelter in a building. Police said at least 10 people were detained and three injured.

Three cars on Syntagma Square were in flames, while one luxury hotel balcony was on fire after petrol bombs were thrown. Smoke and teargas covered the square and bystanders scrambled frantically to safety.

RISING ANGER

The 300-seat house voted into law measures that cut wages in state-owned bus and railway companies and weakened the power of collective bargaining to allow company-level deals to prevail.

“People have had enough. The anger is so great that nobody can stop it,” said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary at the civil servants’ union ADEDY, adding the march was bigger than one in May, when 50,000 participated.

“Today is a warning for what will follow after the holidays,” he added.

Ships remained docked at ports, hospitals were working on skeleton staff and ministries shut down as civil servants and private sector workers stayed away.

With public transport crippled, major roads to the center of Athens were jammed as motorists struggled to get to work. With journalists joining the strike, there was no news on TV or radio stations.

Prime Minister George Papandreou expelled a deputy from his parliamentary team for failing to back the government in the vote. But his party still commands a comfortable 156 votes, with more belt-tightening ahead in the 2011 budget next week.

With a parliamentary majority and future bailout installments at stake, the ruling socialists are unlikely to change course although their popularity is waning amid a deepening recession.

“I can’t sit on the sofa and watch my country go down. I’m here to shout and struggle. I’m a school teacher and many of my students’ parents are jobless,” said Anastasia Antonopoulou, 50, who traveled from the Ionian island of Zakynthos for the march.

Workers were also due to rally against austerity in other countries Wednesday, including Spain and Belgium, ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels Thursday and Friday.


Anti-austerity riots erupt amid Greece strike

AP

ATHENS, Greece – Protesters clashed with riot police across Athens on Wednesday, torching cars, hurling gasoline bombs and sending Christmas shoppers fleeing in panic during a general strike against the government’s latest austerity measures.

Police fired tear gas and flash grenades as the violence escalated outside parliament and spread to other parts of the capital.

Angry unions triggered the 24-hour strike to protest new labor reforms and pay cuts as Greece struggles to reshape its economy under conditions set by a euro110 billion ($146 billion) international bailout. The strike also grounded flights, closed factories, disrupted hospitals and shut down trains, ferries and buses across the country.

It was the seventh strike this year by unions appalled at a wave of austerity policies meant to pull Greece out of its worst financial crisis since World War II.

In Athens, youths wearing black masks and ski goggles used sledgehammers to smash paving stones and hurled the rubble at police. A post office near parliament briefly caught fire, forcing employees and bystanders to run for safety.

Christmas shoppers fled as rioters hurled petrol bombs wrapped in bundles of firecrackers, causing small explosions when they landed. Rioting youths torched several cars, overturned trash bins and vandalized storefronts, tossing Christmas decorations into the street.

At least 10 people were detained Wednesday and five were hurt, including a conservative politician who was beaten in the street by protesters. Two people were injured in Athens and three in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, where another anti-austerity protest turned violent.

Wednesday’s violence erupted after 20,000 protesters marched to parliament in Athens chanting “No sacrifice for the rich!”

Crippled by high budget deficits and a mountain of debt, Greece was saved from bankruptcy in May by an international rescue loan package. In return, the Socialist government slashed pensions and salaries, hiked taxes, raised retirement ages and eased restrictions on private sector layoffs.

Late Tuesday, the government won a key vote in parliament on new labor reforms that include deeper pay cuts, salary caps and involuntary staff transfers at state companies. The new law also reduces unions’ collective bargaining power in the private sector, allowing employers to substantially cut salaries.

Unions said Wednesday’s strike aimed to pressure the Socialists into slowing down the spending cuts they said were hurting average Greeks.

“There is huge participation in this strike … I believe it will put pressure on the government,” Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece’s largest union, the GSEE, told The Associated Press. “We want the government to take back the latest labor law that will hurt workers’ rights.”

Journalists are also holding a 24-hour strike, causing blackouts for TV, radio and internet news, and newspapers will not be published on Thursday.

“Everything is horrible. Right now I am so mad,” said Katiana Vrosidou, a cleaning lady waiting in vain for a bus in downtown Athens to go to work.

All opposition parties opposed the reforms Tuesday, which left-wing parties claim will take labor relations “back to the Middle Ages.”

But Prime Minister George Papandreou’s Socialists insisted they needed to turn around loss-making public corporations while saving private sector jobs by allowing struggling businesses to cut costs.

Public transport workers held a 24-hour strike Tuesday, causing traffic jams across Athens as commuters carpooled and used taxis to get to work. Further transport strikes are planned for Thursday and Friday.

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