Protests spark violent clashes in Greece

Clashes broke out between riot police and protesters Wednesday during a massive anti-austerity march in Athens,leaving three police injured - one after being set on fire by a Molotov cocktail.


AFP - Police clashed with protestors in Athens Wednesday on the sidelines of a large demonstration on the year's first general strike against the debt-hit Socialist government's grueling austerity policies.

Riot officers blanketed the city's central Syntagma Square in tear gas after being pelted with stones and firebombs by masked youths who vandalised metro and bus stops and set fire to garbage bins.


Three officers were injured -- one after being set on fire by a Molotov cocktail -- and police detained 20 people for questioning, including five who were later formally arrested.

The heavy use of tear gas broke apart a demonstration that had rallied some 18,000 protesters in the capital according to police, and over 60,000 according to union organisers.

At least 36,000 people according to police took part in protests held in Athens, Thessaloniki and the port of Piraeus to reject economic policies dictated by Greece's narrow bankruptcy rescue by the EU and the IMF last year.

"Nobody believes in the government and in the (austerity) plan," said Yiannis Albanis, a computer technician joining the protest.

The Socialist government of George Papandreou has slashed salaries and pensions, hiked taxes and is pursuing a sweeping overhaul of the inefficient Greek state sector that has eaten up billions of euros over decades.

This month it announced that it would also lease state assets worth 50 billion euros ($68 billion) over the next five years to reduce a debt mountain of over 300 billion euros.

"We want the government to drop all these measures, to abandon plans to sell 50 billion euros in property," said Tania Vrizaki, an anti-capitalist activist.

"The working class must impose a halt on debt repayments," she told AFP.

The authorities had mobilised some 5,000 police in Athens for the street protests, bringing in reinforcements from neighbouring towns.

Demonstrations in Greece are routinely marred by violence and vandalism. Three people died last year when a bank branch was firebombed.

Another seven general strikes and waves of protests were held in Greece last year against the austerity cuts imposed in return for a 110-billion-euro rescue loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The cuts have pushed Greece into a deepening recession with many analysts doubting whether its ailing economy can keep up with its loan obligations.

Papandreou this week embarked on a European trip to convince eurozone peers to extend Greece's repayment of the EU-IMF bailout loan.

He was in Berlin on Tuesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then flew to Helsinki on Wednesday to confer with Finnish counterpart Mari Kiviniemi, insisting that Greece intended to honour the terms of its rescue.

"I can guarantee you we will pay (the loan) back. The Finnish taxpayer has nothing to worry about. We will pay it back with interest," he said during a joint press conference with Kiviniemi.

Papandreou said that in the past year, his government had implemented 80 percent of the required austerity measures that have sparked such anger in Greece, pointing to reforms of the pension system, local governance and taxation, for example.

The IMF has warned that Athens must speed up structural reforms, including to the labour market, the tourism trade and the retail sector.

Wednesday's strike was called by Greece's biggest private-sector and public sector unions GSEE and ADEDY, while the Communist Party-affiliated Pame trade union mounted a separate mobilisation.

It paralysed maritime traffic and train services, disrupted urban transport in the capital and flights and imposed an all-day news blackout.

The industrial action also affected hospitals and schools and shut down public administration offices and banks.

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