Three killed in Athens as rioters set fire to bank

 

TWO WOMEN and a man were killed in a bank in central Athens yesterday after rioters set the building alight on a major avenue leading to parliament.

Protesters marched past the smoking building chanting slogans against the government, as smoke billowed out of second-storey windows and firemen struggled to lower two women trapped on a balcony, their eyes wide with panic against smoke-blackened faces.

“The fire is out, everything’s okay here. Move along,” shouted a Communist Party henchman employed to shepherd the protest to parliament.

The marchers pushed through the one lane left open beside nine fire engines that lined the bank.

A block away, near Athens University, protesters ripped the marble facing off buildings, smashed it and hurled the pieces at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. The air was made even more acrid by burning plastic rubbish bins and wooden benches.

Peaceful marchers approaching parliament were turned back by tear gas, and dived into public fountains to relieve the sting.

Hotels and retail businesses rolled down steel shutters to protect themselves from damage. Those that did not suffered. A large bookstore had its plate-glass windows smashed with crowbars.

The protests embellished a one-day strike by the country’s biggest unions against a new wave of austerity measures announced by the government on Sunday.

The measures vastly reduce seasonal bonuses from the salaries of civil servants and pensioners, and raise consumer taxes. They are the third wave of spending cuts announced this year and were a condition of a €110 billion bailout of the Greek public sector by the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The government has pledged to trim spending by €30 billion over three years and to reduce a 2009 deficit of 13.6 per cent of gross domestic product to 3 per cent by 2014 – two years later than it originally planned. Just over €10 billion in cuts are planned for this year.

In theory, Greece must be creditworthy enough to borrow from financial markets again some time in 2012, when the bailout money will run out.

But the government is walking a tightrope between social unrest and bankruptcy. It cannot spend the bailout money without economising, or it will not have time to reform and revive an uncompetitive economy. Spending cuts, on the other hand, help drive the Greek recession. Contraction was 2 per cent last year and is forecast to double this year.

The pain of the austerity is being unfairly passed on to workers, say the unions. They marched to parliament yesterday with slogans like “Get out IMF” and “No to the dictatorship of the markets” – the last a reference to Greece’s inability to refinance debt affordably in financial markets because of the precipitous fall in its creditworthiness.

The strike brought Athens largely to a standstill. Its international airport ceased all flights and ships were tied at harbour. Central and local government offices were closed, as were hospitals, schools and universities.

Even privileged private-sector professions such as lawyers and journalists went on strike, though the journalists’ union lifted its broadcast ban following the three deaths.

Public transport worked a six-hour day, mainly to ferry protesters to and from the city centre.

The strike began on Tuesday before broadening yesterday. Contract teachers besieged the education ministry in protest at the expected reduction in hiring in September. A separate group was protesting outside the Athens University downtown campus with banners and loud music.

Representatives of Pame, the Communist Party of Greece’s union arm, unfurled two giant banners from the walls of the Acropolis reading “Peoples of Europe Rise up”.

“What people are angry about is that employees with low salaries are being made to pay for the mishandling of the country’s finances over so many years,” said Mirka Dimitriadis, a retired journalist.

“Not one politician has been put in the dock to answer for what happened.”