Deaths cast pall over Greek riots tied to cutbacks, debt crisis
Athens, Greece » Rioting over harsh austerity measures left three people dead in a torched Athens bank and clouds of tear gas drifting past parliament, in an outburst of anger that underlined the long and difficult struggle Greece faces to stick with painful cutbacks that come with an international bailout.
The deaths were the first during a protest in Greece in nearly 20 years. An estimated 100,000 people took to the streets during a nationwide general strike that grounded flights, shut all services and pulled news broadcasts off the air.
Fear that the bailout won't stop the debt crisis from spreading to other financially troubled EU countries like Portugal and Spain intensified amid the violence Wednesday, as credit ratings agency Moody's put Portugal on watch for a possible downgrade.
The euro sank, dipping below $1.29 for the first time in over a year, on fears of crisis contagion and concerns that political upheaval might keep Greece from keeping its end of the bailout bargain.
Greece faces a May 19 due date on debt it says it can't repay without the help. The new government cutbacks, which slash salaries and pensions for civil servants and hike consumer taxes, are being imposed as condition of getting a $144 billion package of rescue loans from the International Monetary Fund and the other 15 European Union countries that use the euro as their currency.
Many Greeks realize some cutbacks are necessary to pull their country, which has a massive debt of $387.72 billion, back from the brink of default, and reaction until now had been relatively muted by Greece's volatile standards. But with people beginning to feel the pain of austerity measures, anger boiled over.
Although violent demonstrations are commonplace in Greece, they usually takes the form of set-piece clashes between anarchist youths and police and rarely lead to serious injuries. The deaths shocked public opinion and could affect future demonstrations.
Economists say Greeks face years of living with less to even have a chance to avoid national bankruptcy.
Hundreds of demonstrators -- including far right wing supporters -- broke away from the marches and tried to storm parliament, shouting "thieves, traitors." At the opposite end of the political spectrum, groups of anarchists hurled Molotov cocktails and ripped-up paving stones at buildings and police, who responded with barrages of tear gas.
Three bank workers -- a man and two women all aged between 32 and 36 -- died of smoke inhalation after demonstrators torched their bank, trapping them. As their colleagues sobbed in the street, four others were rescued from a balcony.