20 000 Greeks march on parliament

2010-05-20 18:04

Athens - More than 20 000 protesters marched through Athens to parliament on Thursday as unions challenged Greece's harsh austerity measures with their fourth general strike this year - and the first since three people died when a bank was torched.

The rally ended peacefully, but city officials and shopkeepers had taken extensive precautions in case the protest turned violent, like the one two weeks ago.

Store owners closed up and lowered protective shutters before the march got under way. And police deployed 1 700 officers and detained 36 people in an early show of force.

Demonstrators outside the parliament building banged pots and pans and shouted "Thieves, thieves!" but riot police held them back.

The strike closed schools, halted ferries and trains, and kept hospitals running with only emergency staff. The Acropolis and other ancient sites in Athens were also shut.

Premier George Papandreou, visiting Lebanon, said he sympathised with many of the protesters.

"The Greek people are understandably voicing their views about the economic crisis, and it is painful," Papandreou said.

"We understand this and I understand this myself. We also know that we must move ahead with these changes in order to make the country with a viable economy, a competitive economy."

Cash strapped

Unions are protesting harsh measures imposed by the cash strapped government. During Greece's last general strike on 5 May, three workers - including a pregnant woman - died when a bank was torched by rioters.

Protesters observed a minute of silence for the three victims before the march.

Public anger has grown at deep pension and salary cuts, as well as steep tax hikes, imposed in an attempt to pull Greece out of an unprecedented debt crisis.

The measures were needed for Greece to receive a €110bn three-year rescue loan package from other EU countries and the International Monetary Fund that staved off bankruptcy.

Demonstrator Giorgos Koukaridis said he hoped the rally would counter the perception that salary and pension cuts are inevitable.

"There is the notion that whatever is meant to pass (in parliament) will pass. And that's the bad thing," he said.

Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of Greece's public servants' union, Adedi, said low-income workers were being burdened unfairly.

"Let the government hear this message very clearly: We are not retreating from our demands, and we will continue our struggle until we have won," Iliopoulos said.

International flights normal

Earlier, members of a communist-backed labour union occupied the Labour Ministry and held a separate peaceful rally.

About 5 000 protesters also marched in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city.

"When will construction workers retire, at age 80?" Communist Party lawmaker Haralambos Haralambous asked. "How do you expect him to carry a bag of cement on his back until that age?"

Thursday's major strike - the fourth this year - affected all public and many private employers. However, unlike other general walkouts, most flights were unaffected as air traffic controllers stayed on the job.

Some small regional airports closed, and Greece's Olympic Air carrier said it was cancelling 30 domestic flights.

Greece's largest traders association urged the government to take appropriate police measures to prevent damage to stores which are frequently vandalised during protest marches.

The country's debt crisis has sent shock waves through global markets. That, combined with fears for Europe's struggling economy and German warnings that the future of the euro is at stake, sent the common currency to a four-year low against the dollar on Wednesday.

Warding off bankruptcy, Greece repaid 10-year state bonds worth €8.5bn on Wednesday after receiving the rescue loans.