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'We've lost everything': Violent 2-day strike shuts down Greece

Demonstrators on Wednesday threw stones and gasoline bombs at police outside parliament during a two-day general strike that unions described as the largest in years.
/ Source: news services

Angry protesters vowed to bring Greece to a standstill on the second day of a general strike on Thursday while disgruntled lawmakers vote on the details of a deeply unpopular austerity package needed to stave off bankruptcy.

Parliament is expected to give a final green light late in the day to the belt-tightening plan required by the EU and the IMF, after backing it in principle in a first reading on Wednesday despite the country's biggest labor action in years.

Hundreds of rioting youths smashed and looted stores in central Athens on Wednesday after a mass anti-government rally against painful new austerity measures erupted into violence.

In latest developments, Greek lawmakers granted initial approval to a new austerity bill,  receiving a 154-141 vote late Wednesday. A second vote on the bill's articles will be held Thursday in the 300-member Parliament. Only after that vote will the bill have passed.

The measures include new tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants and the suspension of collective labor contracts.

Outside parliament, demonstrators hurled chunks of marble and gasoline bombs at riot police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Police said at least 14 officers were hospitalized with injuries.

The violence spread across the city center, as at least 100,000 people marched through the Greek capital on the first day of a two-day general strike that unions described as the largest protest in years.

Before the vote, police and rioters held running battles through the narrow streets of central Athens, as thick black smoke from burning trash and bus-stops set ablaze filled the city's skyline and obscured its ancient monuments.

Wednesday's strike, which grounded flights, disrupted public transport and shut down shops and schools, came ahead of a parliamentary vote Thursday on new tax increases and spending cuts.

International creditors have demanded the reforms before they give Greece its next infusion cash. Greece says it will run out of money in a month without the $11 billion bailout money from its partners that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund.

Most of the protesters who converged in central Athens marched peacefully, but crowds outside of parliament clashed with police who tried to disperse them with repeated rounds of tear gas. A gasoline bomb set fire to a presidential guard sentry post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament, while running clashes broke out in several side streets near the legislature and the capital's main Syntagma Square.

All sectors — from dentists, state hospital doctors and lawyers to shop owners, tax office workers, pharmacists, teachers and dock workers — walked off the job ahead of a Parliamentary vote Thursday on new austerity measures which include new taxes and the suspension of tens of thousands of civil servants.

Disruption on air, land and sea travel
Flights were grounded in the morning but some resumed at noon after air traffic controllers scaled back their initial strike plan from 48 hours to 12. Dozens of domestic and international flights were still canceled throughout the day. Ferries remained tied up in port, while public transport workers staged work stoppages but were to keep buses, trolleys and the Athens metro running for most of the day.

In Parliament, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told lawmakers that Greeks had no choice but to accept the hardship.

"We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis," he said. "It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense."

About 3,000 police deployed in central Athens, shutting down two metro stations near Parliament as protest marches began. Police estimated the crowd at least 70,000.

Protesters converged on the square in front of Parliament, banging drums, chanting slogans against the government and Greece's international creditors who have pressured the country to push through rounds of tax hikes and spending cuts.

At least 15,000 demonstrators also gathered in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city.

"We just can't take it any more. There is desperation, anger and bitterness," said Nikos Anastasopoulos, head of a workers' union for an Athens municipality. Other municipal workers said they had no option but to take to the streets.

"We can't make ends meet for our families," said protester Eleni Voulieri. "We've lost our salaries, we've lost everything and we're in danger of losing our jobs."

Garbage festering on street corners
Demonstrations during a similar 48-hour strike in June left the center of Athens convulsed by violence as rioters clashed with police on both days while deputies voted on another austerity package inside Parliament.

"We expect that the strike could be the largest" in decades, said Ilias Vrettakos, deputy president of the civil servants' union ADEDY.

"The fact that other sections of society that are suffering from government policies are also participating gives a new dimension to the social resistance by workers and the people in general, and we hope that this mobilization will have an impact on political developments."

Piles of garbage festered on street corners despite a civil mobilization order issued Tuesday to order garbage crews back to work after a 17-day strike. Earlier in the week, private crews were contracted to remove trash from along the planned demonstration routes, but mounds remained on side streets, along some of the march routes and in city neighborhoods.

Protesting civil servants have also staged rounds of sit-ins at government buildings, with some, including the Finance Ministry, being under occupation for days.

The finance minister Venizelos appealed for government support on Wednesday.

"We are in an agonizing but necessary struggle to avoid the final and harshest point of the crisis," Venizelos told deputies ahead of the vote.

He said he hoped for a substantial, definitive solution to the crisis after a European Union summit meeting on Sunday.

"From now and until Sunday we are fighting the battle of all battles," he said.

Trapped in the third year of deep recession and strangled by a public debt amounting to 162 percent of gross domestic product, which few now believe can be paid back, Greece has sunk deeper into crisis, despite repeated doses of austerity.

International lenders, who are providing the funds Athens needs to stay afloat after it was shut out of bond markets last year, have expressed impatience at the slow pace of reform as Greece has slipped behind on its budget targets.

There has been growing talk that Athens should be placed under tighter supervision by EU authorities to ensure it meets its reform obligations.

Squeezed between escalating popular protests against the cuts already imposed and demands from the EU and International Monetary Fund for even tougher action, Papandreou's support has appeared increasingly uncertain.

Although the government has repeatedly ruled out early elections, many political analysts now believe that a snap ballot will probably be held some time in the coming months.

What's at stake
A first vote on the overall bill will be held on Wednesday night, with a second vote on specific articles expected some time on Thursday.

The measures to be voted on Thursday come after more than a year and a half of repeated spending cuts and tax increases, and include tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants out of a total of more than 750,000, and the suspension of collective labor contracts.

A communist party-backed union has vowed to encircle Parliament Thursday in an attempt to prevent deputies from entering the building for the vote.

The reforms have been so unpopular that even some lawmakers from the governing Socialists have indicated they might vote against at least some of them.

But Greece must pass the bill if it is to continue receiving funds from its €110 billion international bailout. Unless it receives the now long overdue disbursement of an €8 billion installment, it has said it will run out of funds to pay salaries and pensions by mid-November.

Meanwhile, European countries are trying to work out a broad solution to the continent's deepening debt crisis, ahead of a weekend summit in Brussels. It became clear earlier this year that the initial bailout for Greece was not working as well as had been hoped, and European leaders agreed on a second, €109 billion bailout. But key details of that rescue fund, including the participation of the private sector, remain to be worked out.