ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks protesting against austerity measures Friday blocked a major national parade to commemorate Greece’s resistance to Italy in World War Two, shouting “traitors” at President Karolos Papoulias and other officials and forcing them to leave.
The protest in Thessaloniki, echoed across Greece including in Athens where marchers held black ribbons, showed the depth of anger at the higher taxes and cuts to pay and pensions demanded by international lenders to help avert a debt default.
The annual military parade in the northern city commemorates Greece’s rejection of Italy’s ultimatum to surrender in 1940. It was the first time it had been canceled.
“The Greek people are fighting a big battle, they also fought one many years ago today ... We must unite to overcome the crisis,” said Papoulias, adding that he had fought the Germans as a 15-year-old boy. “So who is a traitor? They should be ashamed!”
“I came to honor this historic city. There are some who want to prevent this celebration. I am very sorry,” said Papoulias, 82, appealing for unity in the face of the country’s economic plight.
Austerity measures demanded under an EU/IMF bailout of Greece have helped push its economy into its worst recession in four decades, driving unemployment to record levels about 16 percent.
Incidents marred parades and celebrations in towns and cities throughout Greece, held to commemorate the day when Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected an ultimatum by Italy’s leader Benito Mussolini to allow deployment of Italian troops in Greece.
The national holiday known as Ohi Day, or “No Day” in Greek, is one of the most important in Greece’s national calendar.
In Athens, students paraded in front of government officials with raised fists holding black ribbons as a sign of dissent at the austerity measures adopted by Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government.
The municipal band also marched with black ribbons tied to their instruments and stopped playing when it reached the official podium where Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou was standing.
Some small groups of protesters scuffled with police and also shouted “thieves” and “traitors” at officials, but there was no repeat of the widespread rioting seen during last week’s 48-hour general strike to protest at the latest round of EU/IMF mandated austerity measures.
Despite a deal clinched at an EU summit this week to halve the value of Greece’s 200 billion euro debt in the hands of private bondholders, many Greeks are deeply resentful of what they see as German-led meddling in their affairs.
“1940-2011: No to the Fourth Reich” read one poster in a demonstration in Cretan city of Heraklion, where protesters took to the streets during a parade.
The leader of Greece’s conservative main opposition party, New Democracy, blamed the government’s policies for sparking social unrest but he condemned the marring of a day of national celebration.
“Those who are glad to have ruined our national holiday must know they have injured our national pride. They have insulted the memory of our heroes,” Antonis Samaras said in a statement. “They should not confuse our national symbols and our history with a catastrophic government.”
Additional reporting by George Karahalis; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams