Riots over harsh new austerity measures left three bank workers dead and engulfed the streets of Athens on Wednesday, as angry protesters tried to storm parliament, hurled Molotov cocktails at police and torched buildings. Police responded with barrages of tear gas.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a nationwide strike to protest new taxes and government spending cuts demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other European nations before heavily indebted Greece gets a euro110 billion ($141 billion) loan package to keep it from defaulting.
The three bank workers -- a man and two women -- died after demonstrators set their bank on fire along the main demonstration route in central Athens. As their colleagues sobbed in the street, five other bank workers were rescued from the balcony of the burning building.
"A demonstration is one thing and murder is quite another!" Prime Minister George Papandreou thundered in Parliament during a session to discuss the spending cuts he announced Sunday - measures even the IMF has called draconian. Lawmakers held a minute of silence for the dead - the first deaths during a protest in Greece since 1991.
"We are all concerned by Greece's economic and budgetary situation but at this time our thoughts are with the human victims in Athens," European Union President Herman Van Rompuy said in Brussels.
A senior fire department official said demonstrators prevented firefighters from reaching the burning building, costing them vital time.
"Several crucial minutes were lost," the official said, visibly upset. "If we had intervened earlier, the loss of life could have been prevented."
He asked not to be identified pending an
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Greek bailout critical for all of Europe.
"Nothing less than the future of Europe, and with that the future of Germany in Europe, is at stake," Merkel told lawmakers in Berlin, urging them to quickly pass the country's share of the bailout -- euro22 billion ($28 billion) over three years -- by Friday. "We are at a fork in the road."
Greece faces a May 19 due date on debt it
says it can't repay without the help.
In Brussels, European Union officials desperately tried to calm market fears that Greece's debt crisis was spreading to the rest of Europe, insisting it was a "unique case" combining profligacy and tampered accounts. Van Rompuy insisted the growing debt problems in Spain and Portugal had "absolutely nothing to do with the situation in Greece."
"Greece is a unique and particular case in the EU" because of its "precarious debt dynamics" and because it "has cheated with its statistics for years and years," EU Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
But Moody's Investor Services, a major ratings agency, put Portugal's bond rating on review for possible downgrade Wednesday. Spanish and Portuguese bonds and stocks slumped further on the news, reflecting fears that they may also have trouble repaying their debt and that the eurozone would have to extend even larger bailouts to them.
On the streets of Athens, demonstrators chanted "Thieves, thieves!" as they attempted to break through a riot police cordon guarding Parliament and chased ceremonial guards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the building.
Tear gas drifted across the city center as rioters hurled paving stones and fire bombs at police. Firefighters extinguished blazes at least two buildings -- the bank and a branch of the Finance Ministry -- while protesters set up burning barricades and torched cars and a fire truck.
Police said 12 people were injured in the riots.Read the full story on AP