'Night of long knives' by rioters brings destruction to 45 buildings in capital

Tue, Feb 14, 2012, 00:00

A MAJOR clean-up operation got under way in Athens yesterday after extensive rioting during the previous night, in the worst destruction the Greek capital has seen in over three years.

In the early hours, municipal workers set about the enormous task of clearing the streets of debris after a night of pitched battles between black-clad rioters and police.

The violence, which accompanied a parliamentary vote on a new bailout and austerity package, resulted in the complete destruction by arson of over 45 city centre buildings and shops.

Police and business associations said that at least another 150 premises were looted and vandalised, including 17 bank branches.

Leading off the city’s central Syntagma Square, Stadiou Street was one of the worst hit.

Still smouldering 24 hours later was the blackened shell of a 19th-century neoclassical building, located next to the bank where three people suffocated when it was petrol-bombed during a demonstration in May 2010.

For decades, the structure has housed the popular Attikon and Apollon cinemas.

The blaze completely gutted the cinema foyer and a glassware shop next door, but relieved staff confirmed yesterday that the theatres were intact and that they would be back showing films soon.

At the nearby Asty cinema, the owner said staff fought off arsonists who attempted to torch the basement venue.

Reflecting the mood on the city’s streets were the headlines on the Athens dailies. “Yes, with blood and tears” reported Ta Nea, while a Eleftheros Typos headline spoke of a “Night of terror, inside and outside of parliament”.

The parliamentary terror referred to was the extensive political blood-letting in the aftermath of the vote on the second bailout memorandum, which the government won comfortably with 199 votes to 74.

Within minutes of the result being announced, 43 government MPs found themselves as independents after they were expelled from their respective parties for defying the party whip.

Antonis Samaras, leader of centre-right New Democracy, expelled a quarter of his parliamentary party, many of the renegades coming from his own nationalist-populist wing within the party.

In his cull, George Papandreou threw out 22 of his MPs, among them close associates.

In addition, two MPs from the right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally, which withdrew from the government on Friday, were expelled for voting with the government. The purges, which now leave the block of independents the second-largest grouping in parliament, were described as a “night of the long knives” in the Ethnos newspaper.

The question on everyone’s lips now is whether these MPs will move to create new parties before a general election, which the government said yesterday can be expected in April.

“First the government will complete its work in March and then elections will be held in April,” government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis said.

In the meantime, however, he said the government faces “three weeks from hell” in which it must fill a €325 million budget gap by Wednesday, necessary for the Eurogroup’s final approval of the second bailout, and then finalise a separate €100 million debt write-down with its private bondholders.