Greece surveys riot damage after austerity vote

Monday , February 13, 2012 - 2:07 PM

A cinema burns in Athens, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Riots engulfed central Athens and at least 10...

Elena Becatoros

ATHENS, Greece-- Firefighters doused smoldering buildings and cleanup crews swept rubble from the streets of central Athens on Monday following a night of rioting during which lawmakers approved harsh new austerity measures demanded by bailout creditors to save the nation from bankruptcy.

Police said rioters destroyed or damaged more than 110 buildings, of which 50 were burned. They included nine listed as national heritage buildings, mostly in the neoclassical style, while 30 stores were looted.

Smoke still rose from the remains of a landmark 1870 building which had housed one of the capital's most loved cinemas, the Attikon, since 1916. About 100 people held a candle-light protest outside the gutted structure late Monday.

"Criminals targeted all that was best in the city of Athens, its neoclassical monuments," said Thanassis Davakis, cultural policy chief of the conservative New Democracy party, a coalition government partner. "The damage must be swiftly redressed and the city's memory restored."

The stench of tear gas still hung in the air on Monday, choking passers-by, while traffic lights at many major intersections were out after being smashed. The Athens municipality said cleanup crews had gathered an estimated 40 tons of broken marble and rocks from the streets of the center, while railings, drainage covers and paving stones from sidewalks also suffered extensive damage.

More than 170 people were hurt in the rioting which also broke out in other Greek cities. Authorities said 109 police needed medical care after being injured by gasoline bombs, rocks and other objects hurled at them, while at least 70 protesters were hospitalized.

Police arrested 79 people -- including a 14-year-old -- and detained a further 92, while in several cases they had to escort fire crews to burning buildings after hooded and masked protesters prevented access, injuring four firefighters. Police also said they were investigating a complaint from a businessman that rioters demanded money to leave his establishment intact.

A police statement said the suspects would be charged with offenses ranging from attempted murder and possession of explosives to looting.

"(The rioters) intentionally picked traditional buildings to burn," New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said. "These scum must know that when the time comes I will rip off their hoods."

Athens Traders' Association head Panaghis Karellas demanded the dismissal of Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis, and said afflicted shopowners should receive state compensation.

"Once again, those in positions of responsibility, even though they should have been prepared, were unable to fulfill their duty and secure the well-being of citizens and visitors, cultural landmarks and historic buildings, public and private property and our country's international image," the association said in a statement.

The ESEE national commerce confederation said most of the badly damaged shops will very likely never open again. "The center of the capital looks as if it has been bombed," an ESEE statement said.

The rioting began Sunday afternoon after more than 100,000 protesters marched to the parliament ahead of a vote on drastic austerity measures that include axing one in five civil service jobs over the next three years and slashing the minimum wage by more than a fifth.

Lawmakers approved the bill in a 199-74 vote, to the relief of investors who pushed the Athens stock index up 4.7 percent.

The vote was crucial for the country to secure (euro) 130 billion ($172 billion) in new rescue loans and avoid a potentially catastrophic default next month -- bankruptcy could push Greece out of Europe's euro currency union, drag down other troubled eurozone countries and further roil global markets.

The new bailout deal, which has not yet been finalized, will be combined with a massive bond swap deal to write off half the country's privately held debt, reducing Greece's debt load by about (euro) 100 billion.

However, it could take time before the country receives any of the cash. For both deals to materialize, Greece has to persuade deeply skeptical creditors it has the will to implement spending cuts and public sector reforms that will end years of fiscal profligacy and tame gaping budget deficits.

Eurozone finance ministers meet on Wednesday to discuss the issue, after refusing to approve the plan during a meeting last week, saying Athens had to first approve the new austerity measures.

But German Finance Ministry spokeswoman Marianne Kothe said the ministers will not make a final decision on the second aid package Wednesday. She said the bond swap agreement must be finalized first, and the ministers will focus on measures "necessary for the second Greek package."

Before signing off on the bailout, the eurozone ministers also want Greek political leaders to commit in writing to uphold the austerity plan even after the general election in April. Government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis said the written guarantees are needed by Wednesday.

Although the bill passed the Parliamentary vote, there was strong dissent among the majority Socialists and rival Conservatives who make up Greece's interim coalition government. The Socialists and Conservatives expelled the 22 and 21 lawmakers respectively, reducing their majority in the 300-member parliament from 236 to 193.

Germany gave the vote result a cautious welcome, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle describing it as "a first significant step along the right road."

"However, the actual difficult work with implementing the reforms that have been agreed on is only just starting now," he said. "That is the decisive precondition for Germany and the other euro partners being able to stand by Greece with a further rescue package."

The new austerity comes after two years of deep spending cuts and repeated tax hikes that have sent unemployment soaring to more than 20 percent and left the country struggling through a fifth year of recession.

Those measures were taken in return for a first, (euro) 110 billion ($145 billion) package of rescue loans, but despite the cutbacks, Greece repeatedly failed to meet its targets in reducing its debt and deficit and increasing economic competitiveness.

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Geir Moulson and Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.

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