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Tear gas fired at protesters in Greece as thousands march against austerity measures

Irish people living in Athens have told TheJournal.ie that violence is being caused by a small minority, and that life there has become very difficult.

A demonstrator kicks away a tear gas canister outside the Parliament in central Athens, during a rally against plans for new austerity measures
A demonstrator kicks away a tear gas canister outside the Parliament in central Athens, during a rally against plans for new austerity measures
Image: Kostas Tsironis/AP/Press Association Images

TEAR GAS has been fired at protesters who’ve clashed with riot police in central Athens after a major anti-austerity rally descended into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default.

The gas blanketed the capital’s main Syntagma Square, where more than 25,000 people had gathered to protest a new package of tax hikes and spending cuts through 2015.

A few hundred youths smashed the windows of a luxury hotel on the square, ripped up paving stones to throw at police and hurled firebombs at cordons of riot police. Demonstrators said at least 10 people were injured, and they appealed to fellow protesters to stay calm and allow ambulances through.

Irish man Charles Werner, who lives in the city told TheJournal.ie that life in Athens has become very difficult. He says that mass protest is the only outlet left for Athenians worried about massive changes being forced on them in such a difficult period. However he says the violence is being caused by a minority:

Fringe minority communities – notably the strong communist and anarchist movements – are using these protests as an excuse for violence. This comes at a high cost to the many thousands of peaceful protesters, whose message gets overlooked. The odd molotov being thrown in front of the cameras has a much bigger impact internationally than the rolling protests that have been occuring during the last few weeks.

Irish woman Cáit Power, who lives near Syntagma Square told TheJournal.ie that there have been dozens of helicopters flying overhead today and that the city is on lockdown.

The protests are the epicenter of a crisis that could end in a disastrous default that would threaten the future of the eurozone and shake financial markets just as the global economy struggles to recover.

Today’s violence adds public pressure on the government at a time when Prime Minister George Papandreou also faces a party rebellion from within his governing Socialists over the new austerity. One of his deputies defected Tuesday, reducing Papandreou’s parliamentary majority to five. Another Socialist lawmaker said he will vote against the bill, which is set for final approval by early next month.

But the new bill, worth €28 billion must be passed this month if Greece is to continue tapping its rescue loans.

The stakes are high and the results uncertain — if Greece is denied continue rescue funding, it will default on its debts, likely setting off a financial chain reaction that experts have described as catastrophic.

In Athens, sporadic clashes on the fringes of the rally gradually spread, scattering those in the previously peaceful rally. Police had set up a massive security operation to ensure protesters could not carry out a pledge to prevent lawmakers from accessing Parliament.Some 5,000 officers, including hundreds of riot and motorcycle police, used parked buses and crowd barriers to prevent protesters from encircling the building, while a large part of central Athens was closed to all traffic.

The protests in Athens and in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where another 20,000 people rallied peacefully, were part of a 24-hour general strike, the result of months of growing frustration over the country’s slide.

“A national effort is required. Because we are at a historically crucial moment and a time of crucial decisions,” Papandreou told Papoulias, adding that he was still in contact with opposition party leaders in an effort to garner cross-party support for the austerity drive.

“But on the other hand, everyone has to assume their responsibilities,” he said, according to a transcript of their conversation released by the prime minister’s office. “In any case, we will move forward with this sense of responsibility and the necessary decisions” to pull Greece out of the crisis.

The statements calmed concern, voiced mainly in the local media, that the prime minister might have been considering calling early elections.

“Resign, resign,” the crowd chanted outside Parliament before the clashes. The protesters included both young and old, and many brought their children, hoisting them onto their shoulders to shield them from the crush.

The latest austerity drive has brought many people onto the streets for the first time.

“What can we do? We have to fight, for our children and for us,” said Dimitra Nteli, a nurse at a state hospital who was at the protest with her daughter. “After 25 years of work I earn 1,100 euros a month. Now that will drop to 900. How can we live on that?”

Her 26-year-old daughter, Christina, said the situation in Greece had led her to leave for Britain to study conflict resolution.

“I have no job here. There are no prospects,” she said.

Police spokesman Athanassios Kokalakis said about 20 protesters were briefly detained.

The general strike crippled public services across the country, leaving state hospitals running on emergency staff, disrupting port traffic and public transport.

The Socialists’ popularity plummeted in recent weeks over the new austerity plan. A weekend opinion poll gave the main opposition conservatives a four-point lead over their Socialist rivals, the first time the party has been ahead in surveys since 2009. The next general election is scheduled for October 2013.

With its credit rating deep in junk status, Greece is being kept afloat by the EU and IMF bailout, but will need additional support to cover financing gaps next year as high interest rates keep it out of the bond market, contrary to what the original bailout agreement had predicted.

On Monday, Standard & Poor’s slashed Greece’s rating from B to CCC, dropping it to the very bottom of the 131 states that have a sovereign debt rating. That suggests Greece’s creditors are less likely to get their money back than those of Pakistan, Ecuador or Jamaica. On Tuesday, the agency also cut its rating for four Greek banks to CCC from B.

- Additional reporting by AP

Column: We must seize the day when Greece defaults, warns Nick Gleeson>

About the author:

Emer McLysaght

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