Europe

Three Reported Killed in Greek Protests

Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Riot police officers in front on burned out Marfin Egnatia Bank, where three people were killed in a firebomb attack on the bank on Wednesday. More Photos »

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ATHENS — Swarms of violent groups overtook a general protest against austerity measures in the city center on Wednesday, lashing out at the government and security forces and hurling gasoline bombs that, according to the police, set fire to a bank building and killed three workers.

The demonstration had drawn tens of thousands of people near the central square in front of Parliament as part of a general strike that paralyzed airline flights, ferries, schools and hospitals. It did not initially appear different from many other, mostly peaceful protests in recent months, as Greece’s financial crisis has deepened and the likelihood of painful sacrifices has grown into a certainty.

But among the demonstrators were subgroups of protesters who numbered in the hundreds — mostly young and many clad in black, wearing hoods or masks and carrying helmets, wooden bats or hammers — and whom the police and other demonstrators identified broadly as anarchists. They led efforts to storm the Parliament building, chanting “thieves, thieves,” and hurling rocks and gasoline bombs. Some chased the ceremonial guards from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the building.

The police responded with tear gas canisters that spread a choking pall over the crowd.

In midafternoon, in a nearby neighborhood, a firebomb was flung into the Marfin Egnatia Bank, trapping at least 20 people. Firefighters worked to evacuate them, but the police said a man and two women stranded on the second floor died from smoke inhalation. Colleagues sobbed in the street.

The deaths shocked many in Greece, where demonstrations have been a way of life for decades and played a pivotal role in the overthrow of military rule in 1974. In December 2008, thousands of rioters across Greece clashed with security forces for weeks over the fatal shooting by the police of a 15-year-old boy, without any further deaths.

“A demonstration is one thing and murder is quite another,” Prime Minister George A. Papandreou told Parliament in an emotional session on the proposed cuts, which was suddenly overshadowed. Members of Parliament observed a minute of silence for the dead.

The deaths were the first during a Greek protest since 1991, when five people died in Patras, in southwestern Greece, and in Athens during protests against a government education bill.

While the focus of blame was on the violent fringe group or groups, the dark turn had an immediate effect on world markets. The euro sank to a 14-month low of $1.28 as fears grew that unrest could spread to Europe’s other debt-ridden economies. Moody’s placed Portugal’s debt on a watch for a possible downgrade.

Analysts warned that if the social unrest transformed into a long, hot summer of violence, it could add alarm to already jittery financial markets and undermine the government’s resolve to carry out the austerity measures.

Extended unrest could also jeopardize the rescue package created by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, aimed at avoiding a default that could ripple through Europe.

And the unrest threatens to polarize Greek society at a time when millions are already reeling from the financial crisis.

But many observers here said that the violence probably would embolden the government not to back down, while spawning a backlash among Greeks against a growing number of extremists who are seen as using the austerity measures as a pretext to attack the state.

“This really represents a game change in what’s happening in Greece,” said Jens Bastian, an economist and senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. “Greeks and the rest of the world will ask, ‘Why on earth are you firebombing your own?’

“I think Greece will rise up against these people, because now the conversation isn’t about austerity measures, but about a murderous rampage against innocent people,” Mr. Bastian said.

Mary Bossis, a professor and security expert at the University of Piraeus, said that Mr. Papandreou would need to soothe the tempers of many angry Greeks who still did not understand why they were paying the price for the profligacy of others.

“There is still a risk that things can get out of control,” she said. “But this kind of extremism is a marginal phenomenon. Most Greeks may be upset, but they will not throw bombs.”

The austerity measures that spurred the current unrest aim to squeeze savings of some $38 billion through 2012. They include public sector salary cuts, higher taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, and tighter retirement rules.

Despite the strike, the draft bill setting out the measures was discussed Wednesday afternoon in a parliamentary committee before it was to be put to a vote by the end of the week. Mr. Papandreou’s Socialist party has a majority of 160 seats in the 300-seat Parliament, and the bill is expected to pass easily.

For all the scenes of unrest of the streets of Athens, some Greeks said they were resigned that megaphones and protest songs were no match for the volatile financial markets, which have unsettled the country for months. Some said they were willing to endure what some economists predict could be 10 years before the economy bounces back.

Sotyris Polichronis, 48, a former policeman, opened his new flower shop in central Athens on Wednesday, laying out bouquets of freshly cut flowers even as tear gas wafted across his street.

While the austerity measures probably will mean a cut in his police pension, Mr. Polichronis said he was prepared to make sacrifices. To save money, he is giving up his cellphone, eschewing his favorite gourmet coffee and walking instead of driving.

“I am disgusted because we Greeks brought this mess upon ourselves,” he said. “We will all have to learn to live differently.”

Ifigenia Krompa, 41, a cleaning woman buying flowers at the store, said more Greeks would take to the streets as the austerity measures took effect and they lost the ability to pay for basic needs like food or rent. “Greeks have quick tempers,” she said. “Violence is easy for Greeks. It is a release method.”

As the 24-hour strike began, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, told legislators in Berlin that the $140 billion plan to bail out Greece was “about nothing less than the future of Europe and the future of Germany in Europe.”

Joanna Kakissis and Stelios Bouras contributed reporting.

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