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Violence erupts as the Greeks go on strike

Violent street clashes erupted in Athens yesterday as tens of thousands demonstrated during a nationwide strike against the cash-strapped government's austerity measures.

Hundreds of masked and hooded youths attacked police and met 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 customers running from open-air cafes. Police say 16 people were detained and two officers were injured.

Rioters used sledgehammers to smash the windows of more than a dozen shops, banks, jewellers 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.

Organisers said 60,000 people took part in the protest. But an unofficial police estimate set the crowd at around 20,000 — including those that took part in a separate, peaceful march earlier.

The 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 out for 24 hours to protest at spending cuts and tax rises 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 nearby, people sat at outdoor restaurants, continuing their meals.

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.

The government announced an additional £4.4 billion in savings through public sector salary cuts, hiring and pension freezes and consumer tax hikes.

The cutbacks, added to a previous £10 billion austerity plan, seek to reduce the country's budget deficit from 12.7% of annual output to 8.7% this year. The long-term target is to bring overspending below the EU ceiling of 3% of GDP in 2012.

The new plan sparked a wave of strikes and protests from labour unions whose reaction to the initial austerity measures had been muted.

Yesterday’s strike shut down all public services and schools, leaving ferries tied up at port and suspending all news broadcasts for the day.

While their colleagues clashed with groups of protesters, some police joined the demonstration.

About 200 uniformed officers, coastguard and fire brigade officers, who cannot strike but can hold protests, gathered at a square in the centre of the city shortly before the marches got under way.

“The police and other security forces have been particularly hard hit by the new measures because our salaries are very low,” said Yiannis Fanariotis, general secretary of one police association.

He said the average policeman made about £1,000 a month if weekend and night shifts were included.

Joining the protest “doesn't feel strange, because we are working people like everybody else and we are all shouting out for our rights,” he said.

The government says the tough cuts are its only way to dig Greece out of a crisis that has hammered the common European currency and alarmed international markets — inflating the loan-dependent country's borrowing costs.

But unions say ordinary Greeks are being called to pay a disproportionate price for past fiscal mismanagement. “They are trying to make workers pay the price for this crisis,” said Yiannis Panagopoulos, leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE.

“These measures will not be effective and will throw the economy into deep freeze.”

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