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Petrol bomb turns policeman into human torch as Athens erupts in violence

Police in Greece clashed with protesters yesterday as 100,000 workers, pensioners and students marched to parliament to protest against the austerity measures aimed at coping with the country’s huge debt crisis.

Riot officers fired tear gas and flash bombs as demonstrators returned fire with petrol bombs, choking the main Syndagma Square with smoke and sending crowds of striking people running for cover. Five police officers and 10 civilians were injured. At least 25 protesters were detained.

One police officer was hit by a petrol bomb which set his uniform and motorcycle on fire. He was forced to remove his crash hemet and colleagues had to help extinguish the flames.

The rally had been calm before the clashes. Protesters chanting “Don't obey the rich — Fight back!” marched to parliament as the city centre was heavily policed. A brass band, tractors and cyclists joined in.

The 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralysed public transport in the first nationwide walkout against cuts this year.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Athens chanting: “We won't pay” and “No sacrifice for plutocracy” in the biggest march since riots in December 2008 brought the country to a standstill for weeks.

State hospital doctors, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, lawyers and tax collectors joined school teachers, journalists and thousands of small businesses as more middle-class groups took part in the protest than have in the past. Athens' main shopping |district was mostly empty, as many small business owners shuttered their stores.

Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators hurling stones and plastic bottles. Shops boarded up their windows and hotels in the |centre of Athens locked their doors.

At least two people were injured and another three arrested. One group of rioting youths smashed paving stones in front of the central Bank of Greece, but there were no immediate reports of any serious damage.

Despite the many strikes, the socialist government cut pay and pensions and raised taxes last year in return for a €110bn bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that saved the country from bankruptcy.

Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE, said workers should not be asked to make more sacrifices during a third straight year of recession.

“The measures forced on us by the agreement with our lenders are harsh and unfair... we are facing long-term austerity with high unemployment and destabilising our social structure,” Anestis said.

“What is increasing is the level of anger and desperation... if these harsh policies continue, so will we.”

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