ATHENS: 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.
The main unions called their members to new protests undeterred by the deaths of three people, reportedly including a pregnant woman, in a firebombed Athens bank the previous day as 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."
Greek bank staff went on a nationwide strike to protest at the deaths the previous day of three employees of a Marfin bank branch in central Athens that caught fire after youths hurled firebombs inside.
Although the bank was cordoned off, police allowed mourners to approach to lay bouquets of flowers for the victims in front of the heavily damaged building on one of the main thoroughfares in the centre of the Greek capital. Greece stood on the "edge of the abyss," President Carolos Papoulias warned, after a general strike on Wednesday called by the unions and a day of often violent protests against the latest round of budget cuts and tax hikes.
"It is the responsibility of us all not to take the step into the void," Papoulias said. "What is at stake in coming days is to keep social cohesion and social peace." As unions prepared for a fresh round of demonstrations, 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 was the only option. "The only way to escape bankruptcy is to accept the (EU and IMF) aid money, which reaches 110 billion euros... and the precondition is to agree on the three-year austerity plan," Papaconstantinou said during the debate.
As unions geared up for more demonstrations, analysts said that the violence could turn the broader population off more protests. "After the tragic events, there's a lot of soul-searching going on in society," said political scientist Georgiadou at Athens Pantion University. "People are really sad and shocked and there's a lot of introspection. I think things will calm down because the majority of people don't want to take part in extreme acts," she added.
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.
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. Around 20 more people had to be ushered to safety. 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. Youths went on a rampage and clashed with riot-police who tried to disperse the crowds with baton-charges and tear gas, leaving central Athens strewed with debris and broken store windows.
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 Thessaloniki where protestors 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.
However, Greek shares bucked a broadly weaker trend on other European stock markets, rising nearly 1.6 percent in opening trading and breaking a streak of heavy losses. 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.
Pushed to the brink of default, the Greek government agreed last weekend to slash spending and jack up taxes in return for the 110 billion euros in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. Among the major measures, the government is to cut 13th and 14th month bonus pay for civil servants and retirees, require three years more for pension contributions and raise the retirement age for women to 65.