Demonstrations in the Greek capital, Athens, turned violent on Tuesday as police fired teargas at protesters marching against government austerity proposals currently being debated in parliament.
As thousands rallied in Syntagma Square near the parliament building, hooded youths threw stones and bottles at police, who had beefed up their numbers in the center of the city to around 4,000. The protesters had been marching through the city chanting slogans, banging drums and carrying banners.
The march coincides with a 48-hour general strike called by Greek unions opposed to the planned austerity measures, including ADEDY, the public sector union representing half a million civil servants, and GSEE, which represents 2 million private sector workers.
With the exception of the metro, no public transport was running and dozens of domestic flights were cancelled as railway employees and air traffic controllers walked off the job. Metro staff agreed not to join the fourth general strike this year to enable protesters to travel around the capital.
The strike and demonstration come ahead of a parliamentary vote on renewed austerity measures expected Wednesday. EU Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn warned Tuesday that if the proposals were not adopted Greece would face immediate default.
Critical vote looming
On Monday, the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, pleaded with deputies to "keep the country on its feet" by passing the unpopular legislation that Greece requires, if it is to access a 12-billion-euro ($17 billion) bailout fund.
Papandreou told Greek lawmakers it was their patriotic duty to approve budgetary measures that would bring "a fresh start towards a productive economy."
The austerity package would slash 28.6 billion euros from government spending and raise up to 50 billion euros in revenue from the privatization of public assets. The necessary legislation must be passed during sessions on Wednesday and Thursday this week as prerequisites for the funding from the EU and International Monetary Fund.
A move to raise the majority required for the austerity votes from 151 to 180 has been successfully blocked by the government. Papandreou currently has a narrow majority with 155 votes in the 300-member chamber.
Papandreou also held telephone talks on Monday with Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is head of the eurozone group of countries.
Dangers of default
Intense negotiations with private creditors, aimed at extending bank exposure to Greek debt for as long as 30 years, have preceded a meeting of eurozone ministers scheduled for Sunday.
However, current plans would be thrown into chaos if parliament rejected the austerity packaging, closing off EU funding and leading Greece to default on payments due by mid-July.
It is feared that such a default would spark market panic about sovereign debt, having a domino effect on struggling economies such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain.
Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos called on lawmakers to show a "serious and united face so that the state's coffers are not found empty."
But even if parliament approves the plan, the government will likely still find it difficult to gain public acceptance of the measures.
At the Acropolis on Monday, some 300 protesters from the communist trade union PAME unfurled two giant banners bearing the words, "The people have the power and never surrender" in English and Greek.
Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill, Darren Mara (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton