By Eleni Colliopoulou
Thousands of demonstrators besieged the Greek parliament on Wednesday as lawmakers debated new austerity measures inside on a day of protests marred by clashes between riot police and gangs of youths.
Some 40,000 people, according to media estimates, joined the mass protest in Athens which was timed to coincide with a general strike, the third this year.
Another 20,000 people gathered in the main northern city of Thessaloniki, police said.
The show of force in Athens was organised by a protest group that has peacefully occupied the central Syntagma Square for weeks, modeled after a similar anti-government mobilisation in Spain.
The demonstrations were initially peaceful, with only sporadic scuffles breaking out at barricades thrown up by police around parliament where lawmakers were debating a controversial new round of austerity cuts.
But the violence escalated when scores of hooded youths began throwing stones, bottles and firebombs at riot police, who responded with heavy discharges of tear gas.
Clashes also broke out between the attackers and protesters struggling to restore order.
The protest was designed to maximise the heat on the government on a day when public transport and key services were paralysed by the general strike.
Prime Minister George Papandreou had earlier held an emergency meeting with President Carolos Papoulias, the day after the government’s parliamentary majority was reduced to just five seats by a lawmaker’s defection.
Lawmakers are debating a new austerity package worth over 28 billion euros ($40 billion), a condition demanded by Greece’s creditors in return for a badly-needed new aid bailout.
The plan is to be voted on by the end of the month.
“A national effort is demanded, we face critical decisions,” Papandreou said ahead of the meeting in televised statements.
“We will take the necessary decisions to take the country out of the crisis … (but) everyone must accept their responsibilities,” the premier said, calling on opposition parties to support the austerity drive.
Reports said the government may seek to force opposition deputies to shoulder some responsibility for the reform package by setting a minimum majority for its passage of 180 votes in the 300-seat body, 25 more than the ruling party holds.
But Greece’s right-leaning main opposition party insists it will vote against the measures.
Greece has warned it will be unable to pay next month’s bills without a 12-billion-euro loan instalment from the EU and the IMF, part of a broader 110-billion-euro bailout package agreed last year.
But the creditors have warned that no more aid will be forthcoming without firm reform commitments from Athens.
Tension has been rising in Greece in the past few days with protesters voicing their discontent over plans for a new wave of spending cuts and tax hikes.
Many Greeks are angry that additional sacrifices are demanded after billions of euros in spending cuts and tax hikes last year.
“The politicians lied to us,” said Maria Chira, a 30-year-old mother of two.
“Greece is in danger, this is the most important mobilisation since the seventies,” she said, referring to a student uprising that helped bring about the collapse of a military dictatorship in 1974.
“We no longer have our fates in our hands,” added 70-year-old Machi Spyridaki.
“I am here to defend our country’s pride and the future of my children and grandchildren who are destined to a life of unemployment and poverty wages,” she told AFP.
Opinion polls show most Greeks have lost confidence in their country’s government and a political and judicial system that has conspicuously failed to root out endemic corruption.