Greece on 'edge of abyss' as riots turn deadly
by John Hadoulis - 32 mins ago
ATHENS (AFP) – Greece stands on the "edge of the abyss," President Carolos Papoulias warned Wednesday, after a day of often violent protests against brutal budget cuts and tax hikes left three people dead.
As a general strike -- called to vent public fury at the planned measures to avert national bankruptcy -- paralysed the nation, demonstrators tried to storm the parliament and hooded youths hurled petrol bombs at stores and businesses in central Athens.
Police said two women and one man died at a branch of the Marfin bank which caught fire after rioters broke a window and threw Molotov <snip>tails inside. Around 20 more people had to be ushered to safety.
"The attackers wore hoods. First they tried to torch our bookstore and then they threw two firebombs inside the bank," witness Vassilis Hatziiakovou told Mega television.
At least two other buildings -- the Athens prefecture and one used by tax officials -- caught fire in other firebomb attacks on the margins of the protests.
Prime Minister George Papandreou angrily condemned the bank attack as a "raw murderous act".
"Protesting is one thing, killing is another," he told parliament.
Later in the day, Papoulias said Greece had "reached the edge of the abyss" and called on his compatriots "to not take the step into the void."
The general strike was the first major test of the Socialist government's resolve to push through unprecedented measures since agreeing to an 110 billion euro (143 billion dollars) EU and IMF debt bailout at the weekend.
Papandreou's insistence that the measures are vital for the nation's survival failed to dissuade unions from paralysing public services.
"The Greek people have been called to make sacrifices while the rich pay nothing," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the GSEE private sector union.
After rallying in two separate demonstrations in central Athens, unionists marched on parliament where a vote on the spending cuts and tax hikes will be held Thursday.
"They're taking everything from me, I don't know how I'm going to get by," said 61-year-old Anargyros Bizianis, a municipal worker in the Athens suburb of Piraeus who earns 900 euros a month.
As the protestors tried to break through a police line in front of parliament, they first hurled stones and bottles of water, prompting officers to respond with tear gas.
Full-scale clashes then erupted, with riot police trying to disperse the crowds with baton-charges and youths responding with stones, flares, smoke bombs and Molotov <snip>tails.
Youths also went on the rampage in other parts of the capital, with several dozen youths hurling petrol bombs at stores, smashing shop windows and bus shelters with iron bars.
Athens police chiefs mobilised all their forces, including those not on active duty, by declaring a general state of alert.
At least 12 people were arrested in Athens and police made a further 37 detentions in the northern city Thessaloniki where protestors targeted stores and banks in the city centre before they were dispersed by riot police.
A group of about 200 communists had stormed the Athens Acropolis on Tuesday, unfurling banners reading "Peoples of Europe, Rise Up."
A government official downplayed the unrest saying that "for years there's been strikes and protests in this country without much consequence."
But markets reacted with alarm as Greek stocks closed down 3.9 percent.
Pushed to the brink of default, the government agreed at the weekend to slash spending and jack up taxes in return for 110 billion euros in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
Among the major measures, the government is to cut 13th and 14th month bonus pay for civil servants and retirees; require three years more for pension contributions; and raise the retirement age for women to 65.
After months of hesitation, eurozone countries and the IMF agreed to lend Greece billions at below market rates after concerns the Athens crisis could trigger a knock-on effect elsewhere.
Fighting accusations of holding up the bailout, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the crisis underlined the need for an overhaul of EU fiscal rules, adding that the "future of Europe... is at stake".