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Violence Breaks Out at Greek Anti-Austerity Demonstration

By DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press

Friday, October 19, 2012

ATHENS, Greece (AP) —

Hundreds of youths pelted riot police with fire bombs, bottles and chunks of marble Thursday as yet another Greek anti-austerity demonstration descended into violence, less than a month after more intense clashes broke out during a similar protest.

Authorities said around 70,000 protesters took to the street in two separate demonstrations in Athens during the country's second general strike in a month as workers across the country walked off the job to protest new austerity measures the government is negotiating with Greece's international creditors.

Thursday's strike was timed to coincide with a European Union summit in Brussels later in the day, at which Greece's economic fate will likely feature large.

Riot police responded with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades in the capital's Syntagma Square outside Parliament as protesters scattered during the clashes, which continued on and off for about an hour. Another general strike in late September had also seen limited, but much more intense, clashes between protesters and police.

A 65-year-old protester suffered a fatal heart attack during the demonstration but efforts to revive him failed. The organizers of the protest march he participated in said the man had fallen ill before any rioting had broken out.

Four demonstrators were injured after being hit by police, volunteer paramedics said. The Health Ministry said two of the protesters were treated in hospital and that their injuries were not serious. Three policemen also required hospital treatment.

Hundreds of police had been deployed in the Greek capital ahead of the demonstration. Police said seven people were arrested Thursday, out of more than 100 detained.

The strike grounded flights, shut down public services, closed schools, hospitals and shops and hampered public transport in the capital. Taxi drivers joined in for nine hours, while a three-hour work stoppage by air traffic controllers led to flight cancellations. Islands were left cut off as ferries stayed in ports.

Athens has seen hundreds of anti-austerity protests over the past three years, since Greece revealed it had been misreporting its public finance figures. The country has been surviving since then with the help of two massive international bailouts worth a total €240 billion ($315 billion). To secure them, it has committed to drastic spending cuts, tax hikes and reforms, all with the aim of getting the state coffers back under some sort of control.

But while significantly reducing the country's annual borrowing, the measures have made the recession worse. By the end of next year, the Greek economy is expected to be around three quarters of the size it was in 2008. And with one in four workers out of a job, Greece has, along with Spain, the highest unemployment rate in the 27-nation European Union.

"We are sinking in a swamp of recession and it's getting worse," said Dimitris Asimakopoulos, head of the GSEVEE small business and industry association. "180,000 businesses are on the brink and 70,000 of them are expected to close in the next few months."

The country's four-month-old coalition government is negotiating a new austerity package with debt inspectors from the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. The idea is to save €11 billion ($14.4 billion) in spending — largely on pensions and health care — and raise an extra €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) through taxes.

"In 2011, only 20 percent of businesses were profitable," Asimakopoulos said. "So these new tax measures present small businesses with a choice: Dodge taxes or close your shop."

After more than a month and a half of arguing, a deal seems close. On Wednesday, representatives from the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, said there was agreement on "most of the core measures needed to restore the momentum of reform" and that the rest of the issues should be resolved in coming days.

Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, and Elena Becatoros and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.


One dead after Greek anti-austerity protests

By Denise Lloyd, Athens
Irish Examiner, Friday, October 19, 2012

One man died at an anti-austerity rally in Athens held during a national general strike as EU leaders were to tackle the eurozone crisis at a summit in Brussels.
A 66-year-old man died from apparent heart failure during the demonstration, where riot police fired tear gas to repel firebomb-throwing protesters, news reports said.

The man collapsed and was taken to an Athens hospital where he died, Skai radio said. Another five people including two policemen were injured in sporadic clashes that broke out during the protest.

Tension flared when protesters broke through a police line outside luxury hotels on central Syntagma Square.

Scattered groups of youths attacked police with stones and firebombs, and police retaliated with tear gas and stun grenades, later charging the youths to clear the square.

The demonstration later resumed.

About 25,000 protesters joined the rallies in Athens, called by unions and left-wing parties against the tough fiscal medicine that has spelled misery for many Greeks.

One in four people is officially unemployed — with the real number higher still, say unions — and the economy is in its sixth year of recession.

Another 17,000 marched in the second city of Thessaloniki.

The protesters reject additional cutbacks the government plans next month in order to unlock access to EU/IMF loans.

"The people must follow the road of rupture and disengagement from the European Union," said Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga.

The head of leading union GSEE, Yiannis Panagopoulos, said another general strike would be held in Greece on Nov 14, part of a European mobilisation by unions that would also hit Portugal and Spain.

"The peoples of Europe are groaning, with the Greeks first among them. Unfair and ineffective economic policies have led us to poverty and degradation," Panagopoulos said.

"We will continue with our labour action."

The coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is holding delicate negotiations with the troika to secure the release of loans needed to avoid bankruptcy.

The government has been told to jump-start flagging economic reforms and cut the budget by €9.2bn next year in order to secure a €31.5bn loan slice next month.

The money is part of an overall bailout of €130bn that is tied to Greek reform pledges, including a long-delayed privatisation drive.

Waves of austerity measures over the past two years managed to slash Greece’s runaway deficit by over 6% of output, at the cost of cuts to wages, pensions, and benefits.

"Poverty is expanding, jobs are being lost, and Greece is sinking. Greece will die if these austerity measures don’t stop," said Dimitris Sandis, a pharmaceutical worker.

At the evening EU summit in Brussels, Samaras will try to persuade his European peers to give the country more time to apply the latest cuts, which he has promised will be the last.

"We will do everything required to bring Greece to the (cutting) edge of European competitiveness and make it a model democratic society, a modern economy," Samaras told fellow leaders at a meeting of the European Popular Party in Bucharest.

But he added: "People are not ‘spare parts’. You have to fix the problems while keeping the society together, and its cohesion alive."

Samaras and his political allies at home want the latest reform overhaul to extend over four years, to 2016, instead of the current timeframe of two years.

The IMF has publicly accepted the idea but European leaders are sceptical, arguing that the extension will require additional funds that their respective parliaments are unlikely to approve.

The release of the €31.5bn which the Greek government needs to recapitalise banks and replenish liquidity in the economy depends on a troika report on the state of the economy expected next month.

Samaras had hoped to travel to Brussels with an agreement with the troika on the required austerity cuts but a last-minute disagreement over labour reforms and civil service layoffs has left a number of key issues unresolved.

The troika mission on Wednesday said most of the "core measures" required to restore momentum in Greece had been agreed and the aim was to reach a full agreement "over the coming days".

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