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Shoppers flee as police, youths clash in Athens

Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos, AP  Dec 18, 2008

ATHENS, Greece – Masked youths set up burning barricades and threw fire bombs and chunks of marble at riot police Thursday, after a protest march erupted into new fighting that sent Christmas shoppers and panicked parents fleeing to safety.

Mothers snatched children from a carousel in the main square. Waiters stumbled from cafes choking on tear gas fired by police at rioters trying to burn the capital's Christmas tree, replaced just days ago after another tree was torched.

After two weeks of unrelenting rioting set off by the fatal police shooting of a teenager, a slogan spray-painted outside the Bank of Greece summed up the mood as Greeks prepared for Christmas: "Merry crisis and a happy new fear."

But protesters' call for European-wide demonstrations of support — urged in banners defiantly unfurled from the ancient Acropolis on Wednesday — met with no apparent response.

Thursday's clashes broke out in front of Parliament at Syntagma Square during a demonstration against police brutality. The Dec. 6 death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos unleashed rage that has fed off widespread dissatisfaction with economic hardship, social inequality and the unpopular conservative government's policies.

About 200 youths wearing masks put up burning barricades in the streets of the Kolonaki district, throwing gasoline bombs and hammering chunks of marble and concrete off buildings to hurl. Police answered with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades.

As the fighting escalated, frightened parents hurried their children away from the carousel in Syntagma Square. Riot police formed a line at the replacement Christmas tree and fired tear gas to drive off youths trying to set it ablaze.

Businessmen and shoppers ran for cover on Voukourestiou Street, while motorscooter and motorcycle drivers on a nearby road screeched to a halt, blinded by the tear gas.

Athenians, some angry but many stoically resigned to the fighting, picked their way past burning barricades and rocks scattered on the streets, carrying home groceries and Christmas presents. Many residents and shop owners in the city center now carry surgical or gas masks for protection against tear gas.

Police said they made at least three arrests as violence persisted past sundown then tailed off. They did not immediately have any information on injuries.

Since the rioting began, hundreds of businesses have been smashed, burned or looted in cities across Greece.

Shop owners say they are having trouble making ends meet because of daily demonstrations and road closures and because many customers are afraid to venture into the city center.

"Who am I supposed to complain to?" thundered Spyros Papaspyrou, owner of a shoe shop where windows were smashed last week. "Who's going to pay all these bills? I'm taking in euro200 ($290) a day. Do they want me to stand outside my shop with a shotgun? I can't understand why they can't arrest 80 people in the center of Athens."

His anger was aimed both at the rioters for the destruction they have wrought and at the government and police for failing to prevent the damage.

"Honestly, I don't know (who to blame)," he said. "Christmas has been lost in the center of Athens."

Earlier Thursday, some 7,000 students, teachers and other protesters marched through the city chanting: "We are the law! We'll stay on the streets!"

One man threw out fliers with the anarchist symbol — a capital A in a circle — and the slogan: "The road to normality is closed ... due to the uprising."

The clashes have left many Athenians fearful and jumpy. Many people appeared to blame the riot police for bringing trouble to their neighborhood.

"Murderers! Cops are murderers!" screamed one middle-aged woman in Kolonaki minutes before riot police fired tear gas at youths who had dragged furniture out of a cafe and set it on fire as a barricade.

An elderly balloon seller in Syntagma Square, who would only give his name as Yiannis, said he hadn't sold any of his heart-shaped balloons because of the violence.

"I can't believe what's happening," he said. "When the protesters come by, I sometimes get really scared. I don't know why the police aren't doing anything."

Major labor unions staged work stoppages Thursday to protest the teenager's shooting and the government's economic policies. Air traffic controllers walked off the job for three hours, forcing Olympic Airlines to cancel 28 flights and reschedule 14 others. State hospitals operated with skeleton staff in a 24-hour strike.

Shoppers flee as police, youths clash in Athens
Image via AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

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