Riots Erupt In Athens As 3 Bank Workers Killed

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Protesters clash with riot police at the Greek Parliament in Athens on Wednesday. (AP)
Protesters clash with riot police at the Greek Parliament in Athens on Wednesday. (AP)

Greek anger over new austerity measures erupted into flaming protests Wednesday in Athens, as rioters tried to storm Parliament, hurled Molotov cocktails at police and torched buildings. Three people were killed in the melee, trapped in a burning bank.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets as part of nationwide strikes to protest new taxes and government spending cuts demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other European nations before heavily indebted Greece gets a bailout to keep it from defaulting.

n Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel called the bailout critical for all of Europe.

"Nothing less than the future of Europe, and with that the future of Germany in Europe, is at stake," Merkel told lawmakers. "We are at a fork in the road."

In the streets of the Greek capital, demonstrators chanted "Thieves, thieves!" as they attempted to break through a riot police cordon guarding Parliament and chased ceremonial guards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the building.

A petrol bomb explodes next to riot police in central Athens, on Wednesday. (AP) (Click to enlarge)
A petrol bomb explodes next to riot police in central Athens, on Wednesday. (AP) (Click to enlarge)

Tear gas drifted across the city center as rioters toss paving stones and fire bombs at police. Firefighters struggled to put out the flames as at least two buildings were set on fire. Protesters set up burning barricades and torched cars and a fire truck.

Fire Brigade spokesman Panayiotis Falaras said three bodies were found in the wreckage of a Marfin Bank branch on the route of the protest march, and another five people were rescued from the burning building's balcony.

"We took 15 minutes to get to the site because it was very difficult to get there," he said, adding that it was not clear whether those who died had suffocated from the smoke or burned to death.

Parliament speaker Filipos Petsalnikos said the dead were two women and a man, and Parliament held a minute of silence for the dead.

The marches came amid a 24-hour nationwide general strike that grounded all flights to and from Greece, shut down ports, schools and government services and left hospitals working with emergency medical staff. The Acropolis and all other ancient sites were closed and journalists also walked off the job, suspending television and radio news broadcasts.

Some media - including state television and the Ta Nea newspaper Web site - later broke the strike to report on the deaths.

The loans are aimed at preventing Athens' debt troubles from becoming a wider crisis for the euro by engulfing other financially troubled countries such as Spain and Portugal. Greece faces a May 19 due date on debt it says it can't repay without the bailout.

But the rioting underlined skepticism that the Greek government could keep up its end of the bargain, helping drive the euro below $1.29 for the first time in over a year.

Union reaction until now had been relatively muted by Greece's volatile standards, although the country has been hit by a series of strikes. But anger mounted after Prime Minister George Papandreou on Sunday announced cuts in salaries and pensions for civil servants, and another round of consumer tax increases, as a condition of the bailout.

In Berlin, Merkel urged parliament to quickly pass the country's share of the bailout - euro22 billion over three years - by Friday.

Violence also broke out in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where another 20,000 people marched through the city center, with youths smashing windows of stores and fast food restaurants.

The outpouring of anger appeared much more spontaneous than the frequent set piece battles between police and anarchist youths who often spark violence during Greek demonstrations.

Greek unions concede that the cash-strapped government was forced to increase consumer taxes and slash spending, including cutting salaries and pensions for civil servants.

But they say low-income Greeks will suffer disproportionately from the measures, which aim to save euro30 billion ($40 billion) - the country's current budget deficit - through 2012.

"These people are losing their rights, they are losing their future," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of GSEE, one of the two largest union organizations. "The country cannot surrender without a fight."

IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned that the crisis could spread to other countries despite the rescue package's efforts to contain it.

"Everyone must remain extremely vigilant," to this risk, Strauss-Kahn said in an interview published in French newspaper Le Parisien Wednesday.

"I completely understand the Greek populations' anger, its incomprehension at the size of the economic catastrophe," Strauss-Kahn said. But Greeks must also understand that without these measures, "the situation would be infinitely more serious," he said.

Those who are feeling the crunch are outraged that they have to pay for what they see as politicians' mismanagement of their country's economy.

"We'll be on the streets every day, every day! You never win unless you fight," said 76-year-old Constantinos Doganis, who gets euro345 a month from his farming pension fund.

"It's our fault too, all the mistakes made by politicians over 30 years, all the people who cheat on their taxes," he said. "But they are behaving like buzzards - the Germans borrow money at 3 percent and then lend it to us for 5. Why?"

Despite the strike, the draft bill of the new austerity measures is to be voted on Thursday. Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists hold a comfortable majority of 160 in the 300-seat Parliament, and with a simple majority of 151 votes needed, the bill is expected to be passed easily.

This program aired on May 5, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.