By Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos
ATHENS, Greece — Protesters fought running battles with riot police in central Athens, torching cars, hurling gasoline bombs and sending Christmas shoppers fleeing as tens of thousands took to the streets during a general strike against the government's latest austerity measures.
Police repeatedly fired tear gas and flash grenades as the Wednesday riots — some of the worst since Greece's debt crisis broke a year ago — escalated outside parliament and spread to other parts of the city center. At least 28 people were injured, including 23 policemen and a conservative former minister who was beaten in the street by protesters.
Riot police clash with protesters outside the Greek Parliament in central Athens during a demonstration, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010. (AP Photo)
Angry unions held the 24-hour strike to protest new labor reforms and pay cuts as Greece struggles to reshape its economy under stringent conditions set by a euro110 billion ($146 billion) international bailout. The strike also grounded flights, closed factories and schools, disrupted hospitals and shut down train, ferry and bus services across the country.
It was the seventh general strike this year by unions appalled at a wave of austerity policies meant to pull Greece out of its worst financial crisis since World War II.
In Athens, hundreds of youths wearing black masks and ski goggles used sledgehammers to smash paving stones, white marble balustrades and building facades, hurling the rubble at police. A post office near parliament briefly caught fire, forcing employees and bystanders to run for safety through crowds of police, rioters, TV crews and photographers — almost all in gas masks.
Christmas shoppers fled as rioters hurled petrol bombs wrapped in bundles of firecrackers, causing small explosions when they landed. Rioting youths torched three cars and two police motorcycles, overturned and set fire to trash bins, smashed dozens of bus stops and traffic lights and vandalized seven storefronts, tossing out broken Christmas decorations.
Streets were left littered with countless stones and charred piles of rubbish left uncollected due to a municipal workers' strike, and clouds of tear gas lingered in the city center for hours after the riots ended.
Police arrested 10 people in Athens, and detained a further 13. Similar protests took part in other Greek cities. In the northern port of Thessaloniki, 20 people were detained and eight injured when a 20,000-person demonstration turned violent.
Wednesday's violence in Athens erupted after tens of thousands of protesters marched to parliament chanting "No sacrifice for the rich!" Walls were daubed with slogans reading "Eat the rich" and "Occupy Athens, London, Rome," in reference to recent violent protests in other European capitals. Police said 23,000 people took part in the Athens march, and another 27,000 in other cities.
Demonstrations in Greece often degenerate into street fights, and three people died in a bank torched by rioters in May, shocking the country. Wednesday's clashes — which involved ordinary members of the public as well as anarchist militants — marked a resurgence in the violence that had dropped after the deaths in May.
Crippled by high deficits and a mountain of debt, Greece was saved from bankruptcy this year by an international rescue loan package. In return, the Socialist government slashed pensions and salaries, hiked taxes, raised retirement ages and eased restrictions on private sector layoffs.
Late Tuesday, the government won a key vote in parliament on new labor reforms that include deeper pay cuts, salary caps and involuntary staff transfers at state companies. The new law also reduces unions' collective bargaining power in the private sector, allowing employers to substantially cut salaries.
Unions said Wednesday's strike aimed to pressure the Socialists into slowing down the spending cuts, which they said were hurting average Greeks.
"There is huge participation in this strike. ... I believe it will put pressure on the government," Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE, told The Associated Press. "We want the government to take back the latest labor law, which will hurt workers' rights."
Journalists also held a 24-hour strike, causing blackouts for TV, radio and internet news, and newspapers will not be published Thursday.
"Everything is horrible. Right now I am so mad," said Katiana Vrosidou, a cleaning lady as she waited in vain for a bus in downtown Athens to take her to work.
All opposition parties opposed the reforms passed Tuesday, which left-wing parties claim will take labor relations "back to the Middle Ages."
But Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialists insisted they needed to turn around loss-making public corporations while saving private sector jobs by allowing businesses to cut costs.
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Public transport workers held a 24-hour strike Tuesday, causing traffic jams across Athens as commuters carpooled and used taxis to get to work. Further transport strikes are planned for Thursday and Friday.