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World News

Greece hit by 5th day of violence, general strike

ATHENS (Reuters) - Riot police clashed with demonstrators for a fifth day and a general strike paralysed Greece on Wednesday, piling pressure on the conservative government.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis announced financial support for businesses damaged in the riots and main socialist opposition leader George Papandreou appealed for an end to the violence that has gripped more than 10 Greek cities.

“Government murderers!” demonstrators shouted, furious at the shooting of a teenager by police on Saturday. The killing ignited unrest fuelled by simmering public anger at political scandals, rising unemployment and poverty.

Karamanlis, clinging to a thin majority, pledged to safeguard people from violence, but did not say how. Government sources denied rumours emergency measures were being considered. No more protests are planned this week but tension remains high.

Youths lobbed firebombs at police, who returned volleys of tear gas outside Athens polytechnic university, hours after clashes outside parliament following a union rally against economic and social policy.

“Participation in the strike is total, the country has come to a standstill,” said Stathis Anestis, spokesman for the GSEE union federation which called the 24-hour stoppage.

Foreign and domestic flights were grounded, banks and schools were shut, and hospitals ran on emergency services as hundreds of thousands of Greeks walked off the job.

Unions say privatisations, tax rises and pension reform have worsened conditions, especially for the one-fifth of Greeks who live below the poverty line, just as the global downturn is hurting the 240 billion-euro economy.

“There is demand for change: social, economic and political change,” said Odysseas Korakidis, 25, who does two jobs. “It’s not unusual here to hold down two jobs to get just 800 or 1,000 euros a month. In other countries, that’s inconceivable!”

COUNTING THE COST

The Greek Commerce Confederation said damage to businesses in Athens alone was about 200 million euros ($259 million), with 565 shops seriously damaged.

In a televised message, Karamanlis, who swept to power amid the euphoria of the 2004 Athens Olympics, announced subsidies, loans and tax relief measures for those affected.

“The government is determined not only to make citizens feel safe but to support businesses which suffered damage,” he said.

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

The opposition socialist party, which has overtaken the ruling conservatives in opinion polls, has called for elections.

“I appeal to all to show responsibility, restraint and to end the violence that our country is experiencing these days,” Papandreou told a conference.

One policeman has been charged with murder and his partner with abetting him over the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15. A prosecutor on Wednesday ordered them both jailed pending trial after the officer testified he had fired in the air.

His lawyer told Reuters the investigation had shown the bullet had ricocheted but witnesses told TV stations after the shooting that the policeman had aimed at the boy and fired.

The ballistics report has not yet been officially published.

Rioting over the boy’s death began in Athens on Saturday and quickly spread across the European Union nation of 11 million people. Greeks also protested in Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, The Hague, Moscow, New York, Italy and Cyprus. The unrest is the worst in Greece since the aftermath of military rule in 1974.

In Rome, demonstrators burned a garbage bin and threw fire crackers and rocks at police cars trying to stop them reaching the Greek embassy.

Wednesday’s strike by GSEE and its public sector counterpart ADEDY, which include half of Greece’s 5-million-strong work force, was the latest in a series of labour protests by unions.

Many shops in central Athens stayed shut, boarding up their windows to prevent further damage. Bus stops and litter bins were blackened by fire, public telephone booths smashed and some buildings gutted by blazes.

Greece has a tradition of violence at student rallies and firebomb attacks by anarchist groups.

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