, ATHENS, May 5 – A fire-bomb attack on a bank in Greece killed at least three people on Wednesday as police fought pitched battles with striking protestors furious at brutal budget cuts designed to avoid national bankruptcy.
Hooded youths hurled petrol bombs at stores and businesses in the centre of the capital Athens and demonstrators tried to storm parliament during the general strike, as the rioting spread to the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Police said two women and one man died at a branch of the Marfin bank which caught fire after hooded youths broke a window and hurled petrol bombs inside. Around 20 more people had to be ushered to safety.
At least two other buildings, one used by tax officials, caught fire in other firebomb attacks on the margins of the protests.
Athens underground stations were shuttered and the international airport deserted as tens of thousands of union members rallied on the eve of a vote in parliament on the planned cuts and tax hikes.
The general strike was the first major test of the Socialist government\’s resolve to push through unprecedented measures since agreeing a 110 billion euro (143 billion dollars) EU and IMF debt bailout at the weekend.
Prime Minister George Papandreou\’s insistence that the measures are vital for the nation\’s survival failed to dissuade unions from paralysing public transport and preventing ferries from leaving docks.
After rallying in two separate demonstrations in central Athens, members of the main unions began converging on parliament, where the government was preparing for the measures to be voted on Thursday.
"They\’re taking everything from me, I don\’t know how I\’m going to get by," said 61-year-old Anargyros Bizianis, a municipal worker in the Athens suburb of Piraeus who earns 900 euros a month.
As the protestors tried to break through a police line in front of parliament, they first hurled stones and bottles of water, prompting the riot squad officers to fire back with tear gas.
Full-scale clashes soon then erupted outside the building, with riot police trying to disperse the crowds with baton-charges. During the unrest, one protestor threw a petrol bomb.
Youths also went on the rampage in other parts of the capital, with several dozen youths hurling petrol bombs at stores and banks, smashing shop windows and bus shelters with iron bars.
Athens police chiefs mobilised all their forces, including those not on active duty, by declaring a general state of alert.
The protestors in Thessaloniki targeted stores and banks in the city centre before they were dispersed by the anti-riot police.
A group of about 200 communists had stormed the Athens Acropolis on Tuesday, unfurling banners reading "Peoples of Europe, Rise Up."
"The Greek people have been called to make sacrifices while the rich pay nothing," said the head of the million-member strong GSEE private sector union, Giannis Panagopoulos.
A government official downplayed the unrest saying that "for years there\’s been strikes and protests in this country without much consequence."
But markets reacted to the violence with alarm as Greek stocks plunged 5.4 percent.
Pushed to the brink of default, the government agreed at the weekend to slash spending and jack up taxes in return for 110 billion euros in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
Among the major measures, the government is to cut 13th and 14th month bonus pay for civil servants and retirees; require three years more for pension contributions; and raise the retirement age for women to 65, the same level as men currently.
After months of hesitation, eurozone countries and the IMF agreed to lend Greece billions at below market rates after concerns that the Athens government\’s debt crisis could trigger a knock-on effect elsewhere.
Fighting accusations of holding up the bailout, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday the Greek crisis underlined the need for an overhaul of the EU\’s fiscal rules.
"The future of Europe and the future of Germany within Europe is at stake," she told a debate on Berlin\’s decision to lend 22.4 billion euros to Greece.