Clashes As Greek Parliament Debates Bailout Law

Published February 12, 2012 6:27PM (EST)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Anarchists and police fought running battles in central Athens Sunday, as Greek lawmakers debated legislation that would introduce severe austerity measures to stave off bankruptcy.

The clashes broke out around 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) as tens of thousands of people, responding to calls from unions to protest the measures, streamed into Syntagma Square facing Parliament.

Peaceful protesters fled to adjacent streets as anarchists threw bottles, rocks, pieces of marble and firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Police say an officer was injured by a flare shot at him from a gun. He was taken to hospital.

Among those affected by the tear gas were well-known composer Mikis Theodorakis, 86, and veteran leftist politician Manolis Glezos, 89. The two have been actively campaigning against Greece accepting a euro130 billion ($171.46 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that would help Greece avoid bankruptcy as early as next month, when a euro14.5 billion bond matures.

The legislation will also approve a bond-swapping deal with private creditors that will allow Greece to shave off at least euro100 billion ($131 billion) of its euro360 billion debt.

An ambulance picked up two injured people from the square. At least two more injuries have been reported, including a photographer who was hit by both a firebomb and a flare.

By 7 p.m. local time, clashes had spread beyond the square to other streets. A Starbucks near the Athens University main building was on fire.

The debate started shortly after 3:30 p.m. local time (1330 GMT), and will take about ten hours, finishing around midnight. At the start of the meeting, opponents of the legislation adopted a tactic of frequent and loud interruptions and objections but had calmed down by mid-evening.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the square outside Parliament as the debate began, with more arriving constantly.

Communist-affiliated unions held a separate meeting at the same time and started marching to Parliament before halting their march as the clashes broke out.

Police fear if the communists and anarchists meet, further violence would erupt and are trying to keep the two apartAuthorities have deployed some 6,000 policemen in the city center.

Pro-Communist unionists had earlier driven through Athens' neighborhoods, calling for people to participate in the demonstration. Protesters are expected to remain outside the building throughout the vote.

The two parties backing the coalition government have 236 deputies in the 300-member Parliament, but at least 13 conservative and seven Socialist lawmakers have declared they will vote against the legislation, defying their leaders' threats of sanctions. Early Sunday, a conservative lawmaker resigned, repeating the actions of three Socialists earlier this week.

Debt-stricken Greece does not have the money to cover a euro14.5 billion ($19.12 billion) bond repayment on March 20, and must reach a vital debt-relief deal with private bond investors before then. Greece's woes have threatened its future in the 17-country zone that uses the euro currency.

The Europeans are waiting to see Greece finally act on their commitments.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was quoted as telling the Welt am Sonntag newspaper Sunday that Greece "cannot be a bottomless pit."

"That's why the Greeks must finally put a bottom in," he added. "Then we can put something in too."

Highlighting previous promises he said weren't kept, Schaeuble said "that is why Greece's promises aren't enough for us any more," according to the report.

Asked whether Greece has a long-term future in the eurozone, Germany's vice chancellor told ARD television "that is now in the hands of the Greeks alone."

Philipp Roesler said in the interview which was broadcast Sunday that what matters is not just Greece making pledges — "we want ... the Greek parliament also to approve laws and, as far as possible, take the first steps to implement what has been agreed," .

"Only when that happens, only then can there be new aid — and Greece urgently needs that," said Roesler, who is also Germany's economy minister.

Roesler acknowledged that Greece faces "difficult decisions" but stressed that Germany wants it to be able to get out of trouble.

"It is not enough just to give financial aid — they must tackle the second cause of the crisis, the lack of economic competitiveness," he said. "For that, they need ... massive structural reforms. Otherwise Greece will not get out of the crisis."

Germany is ready to help, Roesler said, but "we only can and want to help if there is something in return from the Greek side."

Introducing the legislation Sunday — amid much interruption — Socialist lawmaker Sofia Yiannaka said Parliament is called to approve painful measures with its back to the wall, adding that the intense pressure from Greece's EU partners to pass the measures was the result of delays in implementing already agreed reforms.

"The delays have our imprint. We should not blame foreigners for them," she said.

"We have finally found out that you have to pay back what you have borrowed ... We used to say 'poor state, but rich citizens' because we tolerated tax evasion for populist reasons. Is this the country we want?" Yiannaka added.


Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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