Riots rock Greece

ATHENS Tue Dec 9, 2008 6:23pm EST

1 of 38. A protester tries to escape from riot policemen during a demonstration in Athens December 9, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/John Kolesidis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Riot police battled protesters outside Greece's parliament and in Athens suburbs on Tuesday while opposition socialists called for the conservative government to quit to end the worst civil unrest in decades.

Rows of riot police squared off with demonstrators for more than an hour outside the parliament building before firing teargas to disperse the crowd in fresh violence triggered by the shooting of a 15-year-old boy by police.

Bands of young protesters regrouped and threw stones at police, chanting: "Let parliament burn!"

On the fourth day of violence, protests spread to the Athens suburbs after the funeral of the boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, whose killing on Saturday triggered Greece's worst riots in decades, fanned by discontent over government and a slowing economy.

More than 5,000 people clad in black gathered at the cemetery, many chanting: "Cops, Pigs, Murderers." As the boy's flower-covered white coffin was being buried, protesters clashed with police outside and one officer fired shots in the air to disperse an angry crowd.

His killing touched a raw nerve among young Greeks, outraged at years of political scandals and rising levels of poverty and unemployment, worsened by the global economic downturn.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, whose New Democracy party has a one-seat majority, held emergency talks with the president and opposition leaders to urge them to close ranks against the rioters.

"We must all have a united stand against illegal actions, to clearly condemn violence, looting and vandalism," he said, and appealed to unions to cancel a protest rally during a 24-hour strike scheduled for Wednesday.

Police fear the strike, expected to ground flights and bring Greece, a member of NATO and the European Union, to a standstill, will fuel more violence.

Both requests were quickly rejected by leftist union leaders and politicians who say the government's reforms have worsened conditions for the one-fifth of Greeks below the poverty line.

"The government has lost people's trust," said the leader of the socialist opposition party, George Papandreou. "The only thing this government can offer is to resign and turn to the people for its verdict."

ORDINARY GREEKS ANGRY

Many of the demonstrators in central Athens belonged neither to the anarchist nor the student elements most in evidence over the last few days. One man in a business suit running from gas outside parliament shouted: "They have to go!"

"I want everyone to come down and protest, not sit in their couches, for the loss of Alexandros, for something to change." said Ioanna Panagiotopoulou, 17, a student, among hundreds holding a candlelight vigil ceremony for the boy.

Protests have swept more than 10 cities across the European Union member state of 11 million people, including the tourist islands of Crete and Corfu.

Hundreds of buildings have been wrecked or burned and more than 50 people injured. Police decline to give damage figures, but conservative estimates put it at millions of euros.

More than 130 shops have been destroyed in the capital, dashing retailers' hopes that Christmas would compensate for Greece's darkening economic outlook.

Greek demonstrators occupied the country's consulate in Paris, following protests in London and Berlin on Monday.

One policeman has been charged with murder over Grigoropoulos' shooting. Police said the officer fired three warning shots after their car was attacked by 30 youths on Saturday but witnesses said he took aim.

Amnesty International called for a prompt investigation. The rights group said Greek police had repeatedly committed human rights violations and the law enforcement system must change.

About 15,000 policemen are deployed in the capital alone. More than 200 people were arrested, some for looting, during the protests but police have tried to avoid direct fighting which might worsen tensions, police officials say.

Greece has a tradition of violence at student rallies and fire bomb attacks by anarchist groups, which have heightened tensions with police.

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