Greek violence flares for sixth day

ATHENS Thu Dec 11, 2008 2:56pm EST

1 of 33. Protesters clash with riot police at central Athens December 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/John Kolesidis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Protesters hurled fire bombs at riot police, who answered with teargas, as 4,000 Greek students marched on Thursday in a sixth straight day of anti-government violence.

Riots across Greece, triggered by the police shooting of a teenager but fueled by deep popular anger over corruption and economic hardship, have shaken the conservative government.

"Down with the government of murderers," read demonstrators' banners. Marchers chanted "Cops, Pigs, Murderers" in the latest spasm of Greece's worst unrest since the aftermath of its 1967-1974 military rule.

Helicopters hovered overhead as the protesters set fire to piles of garbage in the middle of deserted Athens avenues.

The violence was less intense then in previous days, but more protests were planned for Friday and Monday and some Greeks asked how much longer the government could remain in power.

"The government has shown it cannot handle this. If police start imposing the law, everyone will say the military junta is back," said Yannis Kalaitzakis, 49, an electrician. "The government is stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Earlier in the day, gangs of Greek high school students hurled stones and fire bombs at police stations in Athens suburbs. Violence has hit at least 10 cities and caused damage worth hundreds of millions of euros.

Data released on Thursday showed that economic hardship is hitting more Greeks. Unemployment, especially high among young people and women, rose to 7.4 percent in September from 7.1 in August, reversing four years of decline, and economists said it would keep climbing as the global crisis reached Greece.

"Our priority is to help social groups that are most in need and protect jobs," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in Brussels, where he is attending an EU summit.

SPREADS WIDEN

In bond markets, the spread between Greek debt and German benchmark bonds -- a measure of perceived risk -- reached its widest point this decade, nearly 2 percentage points, amid fears of further upheaval. "We ... do not expect investors to forget this situation quickly," said David Keeble, head of fixed income research at Calyon Bank.

Many Greeks were angry that the 37-year-old policeman charged with murdering Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15, did not express remorse to investigators on Wednesday. He said he fired warning shots in self-defense which ricocheted.

"Pouring petrol on the flames," said Ethnos newspaper.

Epaminondas Korkoneas and his work partner, who is charged as an accomplice, were sent to jail pending trial by a prosecutor on Wednesday. Cases often take months to reach court.

Greeks also protested in Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, The Hague, Moscow, New York, Italy and Cyprus. Attacks on a police station and bank by Spanish youths in Madrid and Barcelona also fueled concern about copy-cat protests.

While the Greek government, which has a one-seat majority in parliament, appeared to have weathered the immediate storm, its hands-off response to the rioting will damage its already low popularity ratings, pollsters said. The opposition socialist party, which leads in the polls, has called for an election.

"The most likely scenario now is that Karamanlis will call elections in two or three months' time," said Georges Prevelakis, professor of geopolitics at the Sorbonne in Paris.

On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Greeks joined the strike to protest against privatizations, tax rises and pension reform. Many people, especially the fifth of Greeks who live below the poverty line, feel badly hit as the global downturn affects the 240 billion euro ($315 billion) economy.

The Greek Commerce Confederation said the riot damage to businesses in Athens alone was about 200 million euros, with 565 shops wrecked.

Karamanlis, who swept to power during the euphoria of the 2004 Athens Olympics, announced subsidies and tax relief measures for those affected, but shopkeepers were indignant.

"I don't care if and when they are going to give me money, l care about getting the shop running again," said clothing shop owner, Michael Bernelos. "I don't want mercy or handouts."

In four years of conservative rule, a series of scandals, devastating forest fires and unsuccessful economic measures have erased the optimistic mood of 2004.

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