Greek riot police on Thursday fired tear gas to disperse protesters at an anti-austerity rally in Athens held during a national general strike as EU leaders were to tackle the eurozone crisis at a summit in Brussels.
Tension during the otherwise calm demonstration flared when protesters broke through a police line outside luxury hotels on central Syntagma Square, an AFP reporter said.
Scattered groups of youths attacked police with stones and firebombs, and police retaliated with tear gas and stun grenades, later charging the youths to clear the square.
The demonstration later resumed.
About 25,000 protesters joined the rallies in Athens, called by unions and left-wing parties against the tough fiscal medicine that has spelled misery for many Greeks.
One in four people is officially unemployed — with the real number higher still, say unions — and the economy is in its sixth year of recession.
Another 17,000 marched in the second city of Thessaloniki.
The protesters reject additional cutbacks the government plans next month in order to unlock access to EU-IMF loans.
“The people must follow the road of rupture and disengagement from the European Union,” said Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga.
The head of leading union GSEE, Yiannis Panagopoulos, said another general strike would be held in Greece on November 14, part of a European mobilization by unions that would also hit Portugal and Spain.
“The peoples of Europe are groaning, with the Greeks first among them. Unfair and ineffective economic policies have led us to poverty and degradation,” Panagopoulos said.
“We will continue with our labor action. Already after a meeting of union chiefs in Madrid it was decided yesterday that we will hold a pan-European mobilization on November 14,” he said.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is holding delicate negotiations with Greece’s so-called ‘troika’ of creditors — the EU, IMF and European Central Bank — to secure the release of loans needed to avoid bankruptcy.
The government has been told by its creditors to jump-start flagging economic reforms and cut the budget by 9.2 billion euros ($12 billion) next year in order to secure a 31.5-billion-euro loan slice next month.
The money is part of an overall EU-IMF bailout of 130 billion euros that is tied to Greek reform pledges, including a long-delayed privatization drive.
Waves of austerity measures over the past two years managed to slash Greece’s runaway deficit by over six percent of output, at the cost of cuts to wages, pensions and benefits.
“Poverty is expanding, jobs are being lost and Greece is sinking. Greece will die if these austerity measures don’t stop,” said Dimitris Sandis, a man working at a pharmaceutical company.
At the evening EU summit in Brussels, Samaras will try to persuade his European peers to give the country more time to apply the latest cuts, which he has promised will be the last.
“We will do everything required to bring Greece to the (cutting) edge of European competitiveness and make it a model democratic society, a modern economy,” Samaras told fellow leaders at a meeting of the European Popular Party in Bucharest on Wednesday.
But he added: “People are not ‘spare parts’. You have to fix the problems while keeping the society together, and its cohesion alive.”
Samaras and his political allies at home want the latest reform overhaul to extend over four years, to 2016, instead of the current timeframe of two years.
The IMF has publicly accepted the idea but European leaders are skeptical, arguing that the extension will require additional funds which their respective parliaments are unlikely to approve.
The release of the 31.5 billion euros which the Greek government needs to recapitalize banks and replenish liquidity in the economy depends on a troika report on the state of the economy expected to be ready next month.
Samaras had hoped to travel to Brussels with an agreement with the troika on the required austerity cuts but a last-minute disagreement over labor reforms and civil service layoffs has left a number of key issues unresolved.
The troika mission on Wednesday said most of the “core measures” required to restore momentum in Greece had been agreed and the aim was to reach a full agreement “over the coming days.”