The President of Greece warned last night that his country stood on the brink of the abyss after three people were killed when an anti-government mob set fire to the Athens bank where they worked.
“I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage,” President Papoulias said. “The big challenge we face is to maintain social cohesion and peace. Our country came to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don’t step over the edge.”
Violence flared as tens of thousands of striking workers and civil servants took to the streets of the capital and the northern city of Salonika to protest against the Government’s austerity measures.
The demonstrators gathered as George Papandreou, the Prime Minister, was trying to push through parliament tough budget cuts demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a ¤110 billion aid package.
“We are all deeply shocked by the unjust death of three workers, three of our fellow citizens, who were victims of murderous attacks,” he told MPs.
Mr Papandreou defended the austerity package, which foresees ¤30 billion in savings, mainly from cuts in wages and pensions over the next three years. The Government would not abandon its efforts to save the country from ruin, he promised.
All Greek political parties condemned the riot at the bank and expressed sympathy for the victims. Police said that two women and a man aged between 32 and 36, working for a Marfin Egnatia Bank branch a few hundred yards from parliament, died of smoke inhalation after a small group of extremists on the fringe of the protests broke the windows and tossed in petrol bombs. One of the women was reported to be pregnant.
Although the Athens demonstration was largely peaceful, small groups of left-wing extremists or self-styled anarchists fought with riot police. Masked youths clashed with police in front of the parliament and some tried to storm the building.
Police responded with teargas and pepper spray. Debris, consisting of rocks, bricks and pieces of marble, which had been used as projectiles against the police, was strewn across Syntagma Square and streets outside parliament. Two buildings were burnt down and dozens of shops and businesses had windows smashed.
Police detained 70 people and 29 police were injured. The violence was the worst in Greece since rioting in December 2008 after a 15-year-old boy was shot by police .
Parliament is due to vote on the austerity measures today.
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