ATHENS — Serious street clashes erupted between rioting youths and police in central Athens Thursday as some 30,000 people demonstrated during a nationwide strike against the cash-strapped government’s austerity measures.
Hundreds of masked and hooded youths punched and kicked motorcycle police, knocking several off their bikes, as riot police responded with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades.
The violence spread after the end of the march to a nearby square, where police faced off with stone-throwing anarchists and suffocating clouds of tear gas sent patrons scurrying from open-air cafes.
Police say 12 suspected rioters were detained and two officers were injured.
Rioters used sledge hammers to smash the glass fronts of more than a dozen shops, banks, jewelers and a cinema.
Youths also set fire to rubbish bins and a car, smashed bus stops, and chopped blocks off marble balustrades and building facades to use as projectiles.
Thursday’s strike — the second in a week — brought the country to a virtual standstill, grounding all flights and bringing public transport to a halt.
State hospitals were left with emergency staff only and all news broadcasts were suspended as workers walked off the job for 24 hours to protest spending cuts and tax hikes designed to tackle the country’s debt crisis.
Riot police made heavy use of tear gas during the start-and-stop clashes throughout the demonstration, including outside Parliament. Strikers and protesters banged drums and chanted slogans such as “no sacrifice for plutocracy,” and “real jobs, higher pay.”
People draped banners from apartment buildings reading: “No more sacrifices, war against war.”
The demonstrators included hundreds of black-clad anarchists in crash helmets and ski masks, who repeatedly taunted and attacked riot police with stones and petrol bombs, at one point spraying officers with brown paint.
Shopkeepers along the demonstration route hastily rolled down their shutters, while a few blocks away, people sat at outdoor restaurants, nonchalantly continuing their meals.
Tear gas wafted through the city centre’s streets, sending businessmen in suits scurrying for cover, their eyes streaming.
Minor clashes also broke out in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where about 14,000 people marched through the centre.
Fears of a Greek default have undermined the euro for all 16 countries that share it, putting the Greek government under intense European Union pressure to quickly show fiscal improvement.
It has announced an additional C4,8 billion ($65.33 billion) in savings through public sector salary cuts, hiring and pension freezes and consumer tax hikes to deal with its ballooning deficit, but the measures have led to a new wave of labour discontent.
The cutbacks, added to a previous C11.2 billion ($15.24 billion) austerity plan, seek to reduce the country’s budget deficit from 12.7 per cent of annual output to 8.7 per cent this year.
The long-term target is to bring overspending below the EU ceiling of 3 per cent of GDP in 2012.