Greek unions call fresh protests ahead of austerity vote

Greek unions mobilised Thursday for new demonstrations against draconian austerity cuts as the government raced to push the unprecedented measures through parliament a day after deadly rioting.

A protest near the Parliament building in the center of Athens.

The main unions called their members to new protests from 6 pm (1500 GMT) undeterred by the deaths of three people, reportedly including a pregnant woman, in a firebombed Athens bank the previous day when demonstrations degenerated.

Condemning "the fires, blind violence, vandalism", the million-member GSEE private sector union said in a statement "we are determined to pursue and extend our struggle to meet our fair demands."

As the government insisted it would not back down on the austerity drive, eurozone leaders scrambled to keep Greece's debt crisis from spreading to other highly indebted countries like Spain and Portugal

The European Central Bank held one of its most crucial meetings ever in Lisbon to rein in the Greek debt crisis while eurozone leaders prepared to meet on Friday in Brussels to contemplate the future of their embattled bloc.

As unions prepared for a fresh round of demonstrations, Greek lawmakers were debating the government spending cuts and tax hikes with voting on the legislation due to begin in the afternoon.

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou told parliament the austerity drive, which eurozone countries and the IMF have demanded in return for a bailout, was the only option.

"The only way to escape bankruptcy is to accept the aid money, which reaches 110 billion euros... and the precondition is to agree on the three-year austerity plan," Papaconstantinou said during the debate.

Average Greeks voiced sadness and bitterness in the streets of central Athens as the nation was still reeling from the shock killing of the bank workers.

"I'm sad and I'm angry because those people who threw the Molotov cocktails don't respect the lives of other people," said Chris, a 30-year-old who works for a small private company and who participated in the demonstrations.

Anita, who works in a bank not far from the bank that caught fire, said that the firebombing blamed on young hooligans was "the saddest thing that could ever happen to Greece"

"I was working in my bank, we saw the fire, it could have happened to me"," she said. "This has nothing to do with the protests, the demonstration was peaceful."

As protestors marched on Wednesday against the government's plans to avert national bankruptcy and the strike shut down much of the country, some demonstrations turned violent.

Demonstrators tried to storm the parliament and hooded youths hurled petrol bombs at stores and businesses in central Athens, prompting police to respond with tear gas and charges.

Police said two women and one man died at a branch of the Marfin bank which caught fire after rioters broke a window and threw Molotov cocktails inside.

One of the women who died was four months pregnant, according to doctors quoted by the Greek press.

At least two other buildings -- the Athens prefecture and one used by tax officials -- caught fire after other firebomb attacks on the margins of the protests.

The general strike was the first major test of the Socialist government's resolve to push through unprecedented measures since agreeing to a 110 billion euro (143 billion dollar) EU and IMF debt bailout at the weekend.

Officers arrested at least 12 people in Athens and another 37 in the northern city of Thessaloniki, where protestors also targeted stores and banks in the city centre before riot police dispersed them.

The violence in Athens sparked concerns on global financial markets that Greece's huge bailout could veer off course and that its debt crisis could engulf other countries.

The euro dived to the lowest level for more than one year as the deadly protests in debt-plagued Greece cast a shadow over the future of the eurozone and the single currency, dealers said.

Moody's ratings agency on Thursday warned that the fallout from the Greek debt crisis presented a risk of "contagion" for the credit rating of banks in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Spain helped investors immediate fears of contagion after the government successfully raised 2.345 billion euros in the country's first debt sale since its credit rating was cut last week.

Source: AFP

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