Monday, December 8, 2008

Massive riots cripple Greece's main cities

The Associated Press


Hundreds of youths smashed, burned and looted their way through Greek cities in a third day of mayhem Monday after the fatal police shooting of a teenager sparked the worst riots the country has seen in decades.

Dozens of shops, banks and even luxury hotels were damaged and cars torched as youths fought running battles with riot police through the night. Black smoke rose above central Athens, mingling with clouds of tear gas. Broken glass littered the streets.

"Cops! Pigs! Murderers!" protesters screamed at riot police.

Police said rioting was abating in the early hours of Tuesday, although some clashes continued in central Athens. Dozens of masked youths were holed up in a university building. Under Greek law, police are barred from entering universities.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose increasingly unpopular conservative government has already faced a growing number of sometimes violent demonstrations against economic and education reforms, called for calm.

"All the dangerous and unacceptable events that occurred because of the emotions that followed the tragic incident cannot and will not be tolerated," he said in a live televised address.
But his appeal went unheeded.

In an outpouring of rage over the Saturday night shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, high school and university students joined self-styled anarchists in attacking police stations, smashing stores and burning buildings. Police said some rioters were armed with crossbows, knives and swords.

Rioting erupted in about dozen cities, from Thessaloniki in the north to cities in Crete and the holiday island of Corfu. In Athens, rioters torched the capital's massive Christmas tree in central Syntagma Square. Protesters posed for photos in front of the blaze as others sang "Oh Christmas Tree."

The widely televised scenes of destruction are likely to further undermine a government already rocked by financial scandals and clinging to a razor-thin majority of just one seat in the 300-member Parliament. The opposition Socialists have been ahead consistently in recent opinion polls for the first time in eight years, gaining ground on a wave of dissatisfaction.

"In the streets today, a whole generation mourns," socialist leader George Papandreou said, and called for a peaceful demonstration in Athens Tuesday "against state violence, against violence toward our fellow people."

In the capital alone, the fire department tackled more than 200 blazes Monday, said department spokesman Nikos Bougioukos. He said about 100 of the fires were in buildings and the rest were cars and trash bins used as barricades.

Britain and Australia have urged tourists to take care when visiting Athens, where stores in popular shopping areas such as Ermou Street and the upmarket Kolonaki neighborhood stood burned, smashed and looted. Shopowners had hoped the Christmas period would boost sales during the international financial crisis.

Police spokesman Panagiotis Stathis said 89 people were arrested Monday for vandalism, looting and attacks on police. Another 79 were detained for questioning, while 12 police were injured. Stathis had no figure for civilian injuries.

Amid the riots, about 10,000 protesters from the Communist Party of Greece and the Coalition of the Left marched to protest the teenager's death.

Coalition leader Alexis Tsipras said the teenager's shooting resulted in "a spontaneous youthful uprising."

"The prime minister has a deep political responsibility. But instead of taking it, he is rejecting the ... resignations of the responsible ministers, he is adopting the version of an isolated incident and barricading himself behind broken storefronts," Tsipras said.

"We are all part of the spontaneous uprising which seeks dignity and the right to life."
Karamanlis called a late-night emergency Cabinet meeting Monday, after which Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, whose weekend offer to resign was rejected, described the riots as "unacceptable." But he insisted police were responding as well as they could.

Rioting began Saturday after the teenager was shot in Athens' often volatile Exarchia district. The circumstances are unclear, but the two officers involved have been arrested and charged, one with murder and the other as an accomplice. A coroner's report shows Grigoropoulos was shot in the chest.

His funeral will be held Tuesday, and schools are to remain shut in mourning.

Trade unions said they would go ahead with a previously planned general strike Wednesday, although they canceled the demonstration they had scheduled for Athens, saying a rally would be held instead.

The protests also spread abroad, with demonstrators raising banners at the Greek Embassy in London and the black-and-red anarchist flag at the Greek consulate in Berlin.

Although there is little public support for street violence, there is a deep well of tolerance for demonstrations in Greece, where the right to protest is held dear.

Violence often breaks out between riot police and anarchists during demonstrations. The self-styled anarchist movement partly traces its roots in the resistance to Greece's 1967-74 military dictatorship. The youths tend to espouse general anti-capitalist and antiestablishment principles, and have long-running animosity toward the police.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas in Athens, and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, contributed.

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