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Greek anti-austerity protesters clash with police in Athens

September 26, 2012 |  7:23 am

ATHENS — Hurling sticks, stones and gasoline bombs, scores of militant youths clashed with police in central Athens on Wednesday, marring an anti-austerity protest and strike that saw hundreds of thousands of workers walk off the job and about 20,000 demonstrators throng the streets of the Greek capital.

The clashes between police and black-clad, self-styled anarchists capped a peaceful protest and 24-hour nationwide strike against looming budget cuts. The violence came a day after a large protest in Spain, which is also facing difficult decisions — and social unrest — over spending cuts brought on by the euro debt crisis.

The turmoil helped send European stocks swooning, with the euro dropping in value against the dollar.

Called by the country’s two biggest labor unions, Greece’s strike action on Wednesday marked the third nationwide protest to cripple the crisis-racked country since the start of the year. It was the first major grass-roots challenge to the strength and unity of the fledgling Greek government, a shaky coalition stitched together from disparate political forces after two divisive elections in May and June.

Since then, the coalition has struggled to identify and sign off on about $14 billion in additional budget cuts demanded by international lenders in order to release about $40 billion in rescue loans for Greece, which has accepted two international bailouts to stay afloat. Without the funds, Athens could face bankruptcy and eviction from the euro currency.

Budget cuts being considered by the government include raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, scrapping benefits for the handicapped and slashing wages and pensions for the third time in three years.

With the economy worsening — unemployment has soared to 24% and wages have dropped by 35% since the start of the debt crisis here in late 2009 — many Greeks are becoming increasingly disillusioned.

“There’s just no hope in sight,” said Nikos Zarkadoulas, a lawyer who took to the streets Wednesday. “If nothing is improving and this policy of austerity isn’t proving effective, then what’s the point of squeezing us with more pain?”

Recent polls among Greeks show that 90% of respondents believe the looming spending cuts to be “unfair” and a “burden on the poor.” About 70%  — significantly lower than in previous surveys — said they wanted Greece to remain in the euro.

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— Anthee Carassava 

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