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‘Birthplace of Democracy in Chaos’ as Greek Riots Leave 3 Dead

May 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Riots erupted in Athens in response to Greece's plans to adopt harsh cuts and taxes to fix its debt crisis. Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News gives an update on the unrest and a bank fire that killed three people.

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Greece, where protests against an austerity plan turned deadly today.

We begin with a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: On the steps of the Greek parliament this afternoon, demonstrators tried through breaking through police lines, a general strike turning into an assault on the heart of government itself. Protesters threw rocks, water bottles and petrol bombs. Police responded with tear gas, which spread across the square.

The center of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was in chaos. The day began peacefully, as tens of thousands marched to parliament to protest against tax rises, pension cuts, and falling salaries for civil servants, austerity measures agreed with the IMF and the rest of the Eurozone at the weekend.

But, within the crowd, small factions of anarchists and anti-capitalists were out to cause trouble. As protesters passed a bank, some of them set it alight. Three people died inside, and it was burned to a shell. A woman above the bank was rescued by firemen, who led her from her balcony to safety.

Greece is used to political violence, but not on this scale. Cars and shops were attacked, even a fire engine. Inside parliament, Greece’s prime minister called for unity and said those who had caused death would be caught and punished.

GEORGE PAPANDREOU, Greek prime minister (through translator): We are deeply shocked by the unjust death of three of our citizens in a murderous act. Everyone in the country is experiencing difficulty. It is time for a responsibility to defend the social cohesion of this country.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Yet, many Greeks are refusing to swallow their leader’s economic medicine, unnerving global markets, which wonder whether the Eurozone’s enormous bailout of Greece will work.

The unions say they will not end their confrontation with the government until the government backs down. But the government says it has to implement its austerity measures, because that is the only way to get Greece out of its financial crisis.

“Burn, burn this brothel of a parliament,” the crowd started, as M.P.s debated the austerity measures inside.

WOMAN: They want us to bail out the people of the government of the last years, of the last 20, at least, years.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Beneath clouds of tear gas, police set off in pursuit of demonstrators, and some of those demonstrators fought back. The unions are claiming they will bring people out again on to the streets, unless the government changes its mind.

ILIAS ILIOPOULOS, union leader (through translator): We care more about the people and where the country is heading than those in power do. We will not stop our struggle until we have overturned those policies, which are catastrophic for us.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The protesters have now retreated from parliament, and there have been running street battles with the police. The government says that the Greek people will put up with its austerity measures. But what we have seen today might suggest otherwise.

This evening, the scene outside parliament returned to its traditional self. But today’s explosion of anger could weaken Greece’s resolve to carry on with the IMF program, and further threaten the stability of the euro.