By ELENA BECATOROS (AP, 6 May)
ATHENS, Greece - Greek bank workers walked off the job in a 24-hour strike Thursday to protest the deaths of three colleagues trapped in a bank torched by protesters during massive demonstrations against the government's new harsh austerity measures.
Wednesday's deaths - the first such fatalities in protests in nearly 20 years in Greece - have shocked the public in a country where violence during demonstrations is frequent but rarely results in casualties.
"I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage," President Karolos Papoulias said late Wednesday. "Our country came to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don't step over the edge."
The deaths came as an estimated 100,000 people marched through Athens during a nationwide strike against additional austerity measures imposed to unlock a euro110 billion ($142 billion) rescue loan package for debt-ridden Greece from the International Monetary Fund and the other 15 countries that use the euro.
Deputies were debating the measures Thursday and were to vote on passing the draft bill on Thursday night. Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists hold a comfortable majority of 160 deputies in the 300-seat Parliament, and the bill is expected to pass easily.
Greece urgently needs the first installment of loans from the rescue package if it is to avoid defaulting on May 19, when it has euro8.5 billion in bonds maturing. The measures slash salaries and pensions and hike taxes, outraging many Greeks.
Wednesday's demonstration - the first since the new measures were announced Sunday - quickly turned violent, with hundreds of protesters breaking away from the march and trying to storm Parliament, shouting "thieves, traitors."
Demonstrators ripped up paving stones, hurling them and Molotov cocktails at buildings and police, who responded with repeated barrages of tear gas that lingered in the city's central Syntagma Square late into the night. They smashed shops, hotels and car rental stores along their march, burning at least two buildings - the bank and a branch of the Finance Ministry - as well as several vehicles.
Police said Thursday that 41 police were injured in the riots, as were 15 civilians. A total of 70 people were detained, of which 25 had been arrested by late Wednesday night.
A senior fire department official said lives could have been saved but that demonstrators prevented firefighters from reaching the burning bank.
"Several crucial minutes were lost," the official said. "If we had intervened earlier, the loss of life could have been prevented."
The bank workers' union, OTOE, called a strike for Thursday to protest the deaths of their colleagues - two women and a man, aged between 32 and 36 - condemning the violence but saying that the deaths were the result of the government's move to impose austerity measures.
Many banks in central Athens remained open despite the call for a strike, however.
"OTOE categorically condemns those who carry out such acts of violence," the union said. "But this tragic event that took the lives of three of our colleagues ... is the sad consequence of the anti-popular measures which stirred up public rage and the protests of hundreds of thousands of people."
The union blamed politicians, the police and bank management for being "morally responsible" for the deaths.
"But serious political responsibility also lies with the government, which appears not to have calculated the size and the extent of the consequences" of the joint IMF and EU rescue package, it said.
Still, the government has little choice but to implement the harsh measures, which even IMF officials have called draconian. Greece has seen its borrowing costs on the international market soar to unsustainably high levels, reaching interest rates of above 10 percent - four times those of Germany's. Without the eurozone and IMF rescue package - under which Athens will receive loans at interest rates of about 5 percent - the country will be unable to refinance its debt.
However, there are fears that the bailout won't stop the debt crisis from spreading to other financially troubled EU countries like Portugal and Spain. On Wednesday, credit ratings agency Moody's put Portugal on watch for a possible downgrade.