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Athens deaths

May 5, 2010

Three people die as protesters set fire to an Athens bank during clashes over government austerity measures. Rioters threw petrol bombs and stones in a bid to storm parliament, while police used tear gas.

Demonstrators running away from tear gas during an anti-government rally in Athens
Rioters and police clashed on a day of national strikesImage: AP

At least three people are reported dead as protests in Athens turned violent on Wednesday. Fire officials in Athens revealed that bodies had been found in the bank building, which lay on the route of a march against government austerity cuts.

"We have found three dead people in the building that is on fire," the fire brigade said.

Police said that some 20 people were evacuated from the building, a branch of the Marfin bank group, after it was set alight by protesters.

Two women and one man had died, police said, with five people from the bank wounded. The bank was engulfed in flames when hooded youths threw petrol bombs during the demonstrations.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou drinks water during the Parliament meeting in Athens
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou condemned the killingsImage: AP

Officials said that two government buildings had also been set alight. Parliament, which was meeting when the incident took place, held a minute of silence for the dead.

Prime Minister George Papandreou condemned the killings as a "murderous act."

EU President Herman van Rompuy insisted it was "extremely important" that the Greek government impose the austerity measures but voiced sympathy over the deaths. "Our first thoughts today turn to the victims in Athens," he said.

While the right to protest remained sacred, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said, "Nothing can justify the recourse to violence."

Nationwide clashes

Police clashed with protesters in both the capital and the northern city of Thessaloniki, with tens of thousands of Greeks marching against the government’s harsh new spending cuts amid a nationwide strike.

At least 50 people tried to storm the parliament building in Athens, throwing rocks at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Police estimated the crowd size to be more than 25,000, though other media reports put the number as high as 60,000.

In Thessaloniki, youths smashed the windows of stores and fast food restaurants as 20,000 people marched through the city center.

Pro-communist protesters shouting slogans in front of the parliament building in Athens
Pro-communist protesters shouted slogans outside the parliamentImage: AP

The nationwide strike brought Greece to a standstill as unions rallied against major new spending cuts aimed at warding off a financial meltdown.

Transport network closed

Public transport was shut down for the day, with trains and ferries sitting empty. Flights in and out of the country were grounded at midnight. Schools, hospitals and tax offices remained closed after public workers launched a 48-hour national strike on Tuesday, and shops were expected to shutter during the rallies. The Acropolis and other ancient sites were also to remain closed.

Greece's main unions met in central Athens at 11 a.m. local time before heading off on protest marches through the streets of the capital. More than 1,500 police were expected to be on duty. On Saturday, May Day marches resulted in clashes between anarchists and police.

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants kicked off the demonstrations on Tuesday, protesting against the latest round of spending cuts and tax hikes announced on the weekend.

The government agreed to the latest austerity package in return for the promise of a bailout of 110 billion euros ($142.8 billion) in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

German Chanceller Angela Merkel, right, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in a cabinet meeting
German Chanceller Angela Merkel has defended the bailoutImage: AP

Wednesday's general strike is the third in as many months, and comes as parliament is expected to pass the austerity package on Thursday.

Markets remain unconvinced

Financial markets fell sharply on Tuesday, seemingly unconvinced that Greece's bailout package will be enough to stop the spread of the financial crisis to other weak eurozone economies in Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

"There is always a risk of contagion," said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, in an interview with French daily Le Parisien on Wednesday.

"Portugal has been mentioned, but it is already taking measures and the other countries are in a much more solid situation. We have to succeed in avoiding contagion... but we should remain vigilant."

The euro fell to a one-year low on Wednesday, trading at 77 cents against the US dollar.

Editor: Chuck Penfold