Three die in fire during protests in Athens
Published Wednesday, May 5, 2010 7:10PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 1:35AM EDT
Three people have been killed in a fire that broke out Wednesday at an Athens bank during rioting over the Greek government's plans for austerity measures.
"We have found three dead people in the building that is on fire," the fire brigade said in a statement.
Prime Minister George Papandreou reacted with anger when he heard about the deaths.
"A demonstration is one thing and murder is quite another," he thundered during a session in parliament to discuss the spending cuts. Legislators then held a minute of silence for the dead.
More than 100,000 people have taken to the streets in Athens, during a wave of strikes against the government's spending cuts aimed at saving the country from bankruptcy. Some protesters are hurling Molotov cocktails at police and buildings and at least two buildings have been set ablaze, including the Athens bank building.
Police in the capital were also forced to fire tear gas, when about 50 protesters tried to storm parliament.
The protesters are enraged over budget cuts proposed by the government to save the country from bankruptcy. Workers have been marching through central Athens chanting, "Don't mess with us!" led by members of the communist trade union PAME.
The strikes have forced the grounding of flight in and out of the country, while trains and ferries have been paralyzed as workers joined the protests.
The general strike has also shut down schools and left hospitals working with just emergency medical staff. The Acropolis and most other tourist sites were closed, while journalists also walked off the job, suspending television and radio news broadcasts. Reporters later broke the strike to report on the deaths and the violence during the protests.
"They have managed virtually to shut down Greece. It's very difficult to get in, very difficult to get out," CTV's Tom Kennedy reports from London.
"So from the unions' point of view, it's a very effective general strike. But as the government keeps saying, it affects absolutely nothing."
"The language the Greek government is using now is that the country faces either salvation or collapse. And to avoid collapse, it must take these very difficult measures."
Far away in Toronto's Greek community, where more than 150,000 people claim Greek ancestry, news of the riots brought anxiety and criticism.
"I'm proud to be Greek. But things I've seen today... I feel ashamed," one man told CTV News.
Another local resident, Theodore Tsagkaris, said Greeks will have to do some soul searching about what led them to such financial dire straights.
"Greece has a small economy. It's not a big economy. Why did they lend them all that money?" said Tsagkaris. "Let them work hard, and let them learn to live within their means."
Under measures announced on Sunday, the salaries and pensions for civil servants are to be slashed by the cash-strapped government, while consumer taxes will be increased. It's all in a bid to secure a euro110 billion (US$144 billion) three-year loan package from European partners and the International Monetary Fund.
But the unions representing public and private sector workers say low-income Greeks will suffer disproportionately from the measures.
"These people are losing their rights, they are losing their future," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of GSEE, one of the two largest union organizations. "The country cannot surrender without a fight."
"We understand the difficult financial situation but we are obliged to demonstrate because they are cutting our pay," said Giorgos Vassilopoulos, head of Greek Postal Workers Union.
"Some of us are losing 20 per cent of our salaries. They plan needs to change, to promote growth as a way of repairing the economy -- otherwise we'll be trapped in recession."
Opinion polls also show increasing anger among ordinary Greeks, who wonder why the measures are being brought in even while rampant tax evasion and corruption go unpunished.
Under the austerity bill that Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou submitted to parliament on Tuesday, the wage cuts and tax increases will save 30 billion euros ($40 billion) – the size of the country's current budget deficit -- through 2012.
Greece's conservative opposition has vowed to vote against the bill later this week. But since the current government has a comfortable majority of 160 in the 300-seat Parliament, the legislation is expected to pass easily.
Under the deal with the EU and IMF, the eurozone's other 15 countries will extend loans to Greece with interest rates of about 5 per cent -- much lower than the 10 per cent rate Greece would faces on the international market.
But the euro currency has sunk this week on concerns that the rescue package will not be enough to stop the debt crisis from spreading to other financially-troubled eurozone countries such as Portugal and Spain.
"Everyone must remain extremely vigilant," to this risk, IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned in an interview published in French newspaper Le Parisien Wednesday.
He said Greek anger at the harsh spending cuts was understandable.
"I completely understand the Greek populations' anger, its incomprehension at the size of the economic catastrophe," Strauss-Kahn said. But Greeks must also understand that without these measures, "the situation would be infinitely more serious," he said.