Tens of thousands of striking Greek workers took to the streets, some throwing stones at police, in a defiant show of protest against austerity measures aimed at averting the debt-plagued country’s economic collapse.
A general strike shut down schools, hospitals, flight and public services across Greece today, touching off further riots that left dozens injured and piling the pressure on a government severely shaken by five days of unprecedented civil unrest.
Stone-throwing youths fought pitched battles with riot police outside Athens’ parliament as thousands of striking workers joined a separate demonstration, chanting their way through the capital.
Amid screams of “let parliament burn,” protesters hurled petrol bombs, marble slabs and pieces of cement at police who responded by firing rounds of acrid tear gas into the air.
The clashes, triggered by the police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, are the worst disturbances to hit Greece since the end of military rule in 1974.
Angry mobs have relentlessly laid siege to cities nationwide, plundering public buildings, stores and cars before sending them up in flames in an orgy of destruction.
With the country shut down and Greece’s links to the world cut as a result of the strike, the conservative administration – already clinging onto power by a single seat in Athens’ 300 member House – found itself facing a full-scale political crisis.
Addressing the nation in a bid to contain the spiralling tensions, the prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, today pledged financial support for those who had suffered damage and promised to protect individuals from further violence.
But opposition to the free-market conservatives’ fiscal policies and plans to privatise hospitals and schools, is unlikely to fade soon. Support for the government, even from the most die-hard conservatives, has dropped dramatically with nearly 70% telling pollsters they have mishandled the crisis.
“The only way out of this impasse is for the government to resign and call early elections,” said Spyros Polyzos, a 60-year-old accountant participating in the demonstration.
“Young people are right to take to the streets. They have absolutely no future. It’s not just the global economic crisis. Even if they speak three foreign languages and get the best degrees they can’t find work, and if they do it pays badly. The only thing that saves them is the strong family ties here.”
“These protests are our answer to a government that always closes the doors in our face,” said Yiannis Yiapitsakis, a student at Athens’ fabled Polytechnic.
“If the root causes of our problems are not solved there will be more explosions. It’s a smouldering fire, all it needs is another match.”
Symbolic of the fear and loathing gripping Greece is the makeshift shrine erected on the spot in Athens where Grigoropoulos was shot dead.
In handwritten notes, cards, paintings and poems, Greeks of all ages not only honoured the young “martyr” but gave vivid testimony to a country that increasingly appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“You have paid for what people like me who belong to the generation of 50-year-olds, know to be true,” wrote one father in a note placed on top of a pile of roses, candles, plants and paper icons.
“That we are shaking with worry over the future of our children. Something has to happen now.”
Today, according to a lawyer for the two police officers accused in the fatal shooting, a ballistic examination revealed that the schoolboy had died as an accident after the bullet ricocheted.
“Whether it was an accident or not that policemen should never have pulled a gun on a child,” said 20-year-old Menelaos Katrakis paying homage at the scene. “The killing somehow sums up everything that is wrong with Greece today: repression, police brutality and fear.”
As riot police responded with teargas when, in sporadic bursts, masked youths charged them in Athens city centre. The violence coincided with a general strike that shut down public services and closed off Greece to the outside world.
For trade unions the mass show of force was a warning shot to a government struggling to satisfy its eurozone partners with policies deemed vital for the nation’s fiscal health while appeasing angry workers at home.
“This is the red line,” said Nikos Goulas, head of a union that represents 20,000 workers at Athens international airport. “Greece is not Ireland. If the government does not back down there will be huge unrest,” he added, holding a banner that proclaimed: “As much as you terrorise us, these measures won’t pass.”
Police fired teargas in clashes with demonstrators in central Athens today after more than 30,000 people took to the streets to protest against austerity measures aimed at reducing Greece public debt.
Riot police confronted violent protesters who hurled rocks, red paint and plastic bottles near the parliament building in sporadic clashes after a largely peaceful rally of disgruntled workers.
“A group of 50 youths tried to storm the university building and riot police fired teargas to stop them,” a police official told Reuters.
At least two protesters were arrested. Earlier, thousands of public and private sector workers marched through the streets under the slogan “people and their needs above markets”. The march was part of a general strike that prompted all flights to and from Greek airports to be cancelled and caused public transport to grind to a near-standstill, with most trains and ferries standing idle.
Schools, tax offices and council buildings remain closed, while public hospitals are using emergency staff.
The country’s two largest trade unions oppose a wave of EU-backed spending cuts announced over the past weeks to reduce the budget deficit and help the country out of financial crisis.