Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Greek Police Fight Protesters a 4th Day as General Strike Looms

By Maria Petrakis

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Greek police used tear gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters outside the country’s parliament on the fourth day of unrest after the killing of a youth by security forces. Demonstrations may resume tomorrow when unions hold a general strike.

Police surrounded the parliament building in the center of Athens, pushing back against thousands of teachers and students who were trying to break a cordon, Antenna TV showed. Helmet-clad officers responded with tear gas when protesters threw stones.

As calm returned to the city center, Skai TV showed scenes of police chasing protesters throwing rocks in the streets of Nea Smyrni, a residential southern suburb of the capital, after the funeral of the 15-year-old boy shot dead by police on Dec. 6. Disturbances were also reported in Thessaloniki, the second- biggest city, the port of Patras and the island of Samos.

The country’s biggest labor groups, GSEE, which represents about 2 million workers, and civil-service union ADEDY, with 500,000 members, rebuffed a call by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis to cancel planned rallies in Athens tomorrow to prevent more clashes. Pledges by Karamanlis’s government, which is fighting declining voter popularity, to show no leniency to those responsible for the boy’s death have failed to stem the violence.

Police in Athens fired tear gas and dragged away protesters late yesterday as demonstrators rampaged through the capital, torching stores, banks and hotel lobbies in the worst violence in decades. The fighting erupted in the wake of marches organized by the opposition Syriza movement and the Communist Party of Greece.

Buildings Attacked

Students set fire yesterday to a Christmas tree in Syntagma Square in front of parliament and looted duty-free stores in neighboring streets. The lobby of the Athens Plaza Hotel, located on the square, was torched as were branches of Bank Millennium SA and Olympic Airways SA. Rioters burned down a post office located hundreds of meters from Athens’ ancient Parthenon temple. The letters “R.I.P.” were spray-painted on the wall of the Grande Bretagne Hotel.

“No one has the right to use this tragic event as an alibi for acts of raw violence,” Karamanlis, 52, told reporters in Athens today after meeting with President Karolos Papoulias. He reiterated that there would be “no clemency” for the perpetrators. “In these critical times, the political world is obliged unanimously and unequivocally to condemn these expressions of catastrophe and to isolate them.”

Papoulias called for calm as the youth, Alexis Grigoropoulos, was laid to rest. Grigoropoulos was killed after a group of about 30 teenagers hurling projectiles attacked a patrol car in the Exarhia district of Athens, according to the Interior Ministry.


Two policemen parked the car and went to arrest the group on foot, the police said. When they were attacked again, one officer fired three shots, hitting the boy.

“The state will do what it can to prevent a repeat of this tragedy,” Karamanlis said. “Those responsible will receive the punishment they deserve.”

The officer who fired the shots was charged with murder and illegal use of a weapon while his colleague will be charged with being an accomplice to the killing, state-controlled Athens News Agency reported.

About 1,000 youths rampaged through central Athens, burning and attacking banks, stores and cars, shortly after the shooting. The riots spread to other cities, including Thessaloniki and the island of Crete.

Teenager’s Funeral

Rioting continued into the early hours today and police said 87 people were arrested in Athens for attacking officers, vandalism and looting. A total of 176 people were detained while 12 police were injured, police said. Mega TV reported that the figure arrested for all of Greece reached 157.

The fire service responded to more than 200 blazes in central Athens yesterday, about half of them in buildings and the remainder in cars and garbage bins used as barricades, the Associated Press said.

High schools were shut today as are many public services, to mark the teenager’s funeral.
Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the interior and public order minister, tendered his resignation after the shooting, though it wasn’t accepted.

Pitched battles between police and students and anarchist groups are frequent in Greece, particularly in the capital. New Democracy party policies including changes to the state-run education system have fueled tensions.

Education Disputes

Demands from students and teachers range from more public spending on education and higher wages for teachers to opposition to government plans to recognize privately run colleges. University professors have already called a three-day strike.

The Dec. 6 shooting occurred in a neighborhood where police regularly clash with students.
The area is adjacent to the National Technical University of Athens, or Polytechnic, the site of the 1973 student uprising against the military junta that ruled Greece at the time.

The popularity of New Democracy, which has 151 of parliament’s 300 seats, has slid since the government announced new tax measures in September, while the global financial crisis prevents it from providing relief to lower-income groups. Opinion polls since September show the opposition Panhellenic Socialist Movement, led by George Papandreou, leading New Democracy for the first time in eight years. Papandreou, 56, is the son of Andreas Papandreou, a former prime minister.

‘Multiple Crises’

“The country doesn’t have a government which can protect the citizen, their rights, their security,” Papandreou said today, after meeting with Karamanlis. “Our society, our citizens are living through multiple crises: economic, social, institutional, of values. The government has lost the confidence of the Greek people.” He called for early elections.

Tomorrow’s strike, called to protest the government’s economic policies, will shut down schools and government offices and disrupt public transport. Air traffic controllers will walk off the job, forcing the cancellation of flights by carriers Aegean Airways SA and Olympic Airways SA. GSEE and ADEDY have called a rally at 10:00 a.m. in Athens.

Karamanlis introduced new taxes on dividends, stock options, self-employed workers and small businesses to boost revenue as slowing growth and higher inflation and interest rates hamper the government’s ability to meet budget targets.

Greek economic growth will slow to 2.7 percent next year, below a previous forecast of 3 percent, according to the government’s final budget plan for 2009, which was submitted to parliament last month. The economy is being buffeted by the global credit crisis and a recession in Germany, the euro zone’s largest economy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Petrakis in Athens at mpetrakis@bloomberg.net.


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