GREEK police and anti-austerity protesters faced off in a tense duel yesterday that quickly escalated into full blown clashes as angry workers were teargassed seeking to pierce unprecedented defences.
Radicals among some 10,000 protesters sought to break through a 4000-man ring of steel drawn around parliament on the first of a two-day protest at radical tax rises even for the country’s poorest.
They set a truck ablaze as firebombing drew volleys of tear gas in response, giving an ugly but expected turn to events.
The tactics were clear from the outset – police having learnt from December 2008 riots over the cop killing of a teenager and huge protests in May last year, around the time of Greece’s first bailout, that left three dead in a firebombed Athens bank.
Sealing off entire blocks around parliament to anyone who didn’t have proof of business or residential credentials, scores of battle buses and fire engines lay in wait all morning – ready also to pump out water cannons.
“They attacked us on June 15, but we fought back and we will do the same again,” said Felipe, a 23-year-old student of Spanish origin in the ‘indignants’ camp that has taken over Athens’ central square for the last seven weeks nearly.
He was speaking before the first clashes, but like other protesters had warned that the barriers were likely to break.
“It’s 50:50 between those who want to push today, and those who want to keep the protest peaceful,” said one.
“IMF Out – Cancel Debt Now,” read one banner among the crowd. “Banker and Boss – We’ll Fight You in the Factories – We’ll Fight You in Syntagma Square,” read another.
“Even the Turks never imposed this volume of taxes on us,” said 70-year-old ex-sailor Panayotis Bakossis, cheerleading the protest.
“Tonight will not be a good time to be in Syntagma,” added barmaid Maria in a side street cafe.
She said she was already “afraid to walk home” after closing time in recent weeks, with the mood turning ever darker.
Nearby stores, while open, were largely deserted with iron grills drawn down over windows in anticipation of damage.
‘Professional’ protesters came equipped with gas masks draped around their necks while Sri Lankan youths touted colourful paper parasols for five euros to the large number of women among the group.
That is the price of a basic lunch in cheaper parts of the Greek capital – but also a princely sum for some among the Syntagma ‘indignants.’
Awaiting the resumption late-afternoon of a parliamentary debate ahead of the first vote on the disputed austerity laws today, unions served notice of their opposition to plans to sell the state’s holding in Greece’s main electricity provider.
Many fear more violence would break out upon nightfall.