Strike Paralyzes Greece; Protests Turn Violent

Greek public and private sector workers went on strike on Thursday, grounding flights, shutting schools and halting public transport in the second nationwide walkout in two weeks in protest against austerity plans.

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Athens’ streets echoed with loud-speakers blaring slogans calling for the rich to pay for a severe debt crisis, as thousands marched against cuts in civil servants’ income, tax hikes, a pension freeze and increase in the retirement age.

“No sacrifice for the rich!” protesters chanted, beating drums and holding banners reading: “Where did the money go?”

Greek police fired teargas at groups of stone-throwing youths in central Athens.

Police first fired teargas at a group of 50 youths in the anarchist neighbourhood of Exarchia, away from the main protest.

But soon after, clashes erupted at the march with some 30 youths hurling sticks and stones at police, who returned with several rounds of tear gas. Threre were no reports of injuries.

An official at the Citizen Protection Ministry said some 200 youths, whom he described as anarchists, were participating in the the march.

“Let parliament burn,” chanted dozens of youths wearing black hoods and waving leftist and anarchist flags.

“Measures Are Unfair”

Under pressure from European Union partners and markets to do more to stem a crisis that has shaken the euro, the government last week unveiled a 4.8 billion euro ($6.51 billion) austerity package to slash spending and raise taxes.

But the 24-hour strike was unlikely to derail the plan.

Although most ordinary Greeks agree measures were necessary, the package is largely viewed as hitting the wrong people in a country with widespread corruption and tax evasion.

“The measures are unfair … we cannot make it, we have children, families. We need to find the money to support them,” said 60-year old health sector worker Odysseas Panagopoulos. “Banks and rich people should pay for this crisis.”

Last week’s austerity package, aimed at reassuring markets that Athens can handle a 300 billion euro debt mountain, came just 5 months after the socialists won an election on a promise to help the poor face Greece’s first recession in 16 years.

The level of participation in the strike and protests will be watched closely outside Greece.

EU policymakers, rating agencies and financial markets welcomed the latest measures but want to see them implemented quickly and smoothly.

“Where Is the Money?”

“This government deceived us,” said Zaharoula Toulia, 57, a private sector pensioner, who voted for the socialists in October. “They said there was money. Where is it?,” said Toulia, who lives on an 800 euro pension and says her two children are unemployed.

Unions from taxi drivers to refuse collectors have stepped up protests over the past weeks. Thursday’s strike was called by the main private sector union GSEE and its public sector sister ADEDY, which together represent half of the country’s 5 million workforce.

ADEDY is preparing further action in April and May. Opinion polls show Greeks, even those protesting, widely believe the measures will be applied despite growing opposition.

“Everything will be dead in Greece but the majority of people understand there is no other option,” ALCO pollster Costas Panagopoulos said. “I don’t believe a strike and rallies can seriously affect the government’s policies.”

Buses and trains were not operating in Athens, and ships were docked. Journalists and state TV were also on strike.

Bank employees, firemen, tax collectors and even police officers were also expected to be among those marching. Many archaeological sites and museums were closed to visitors.

Opposition to the cuts has been relatively subdued so far, but Greeks are prone to take to the streets in protests that can turn violent.

Riot police were stationed throughout central Athens and police said they were bracing for trouble after clashes at an anti-austerity march last week.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said in Washington on Wednesday that the crisis was not this government’s fault.

His administration shocked markets by sharply revising up the budget deficit forecast of its conservative predecessor.

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