Masked protesters clash with Greek police

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Dozens of masked youths clashed with police at a union protest Tuesday in Athens during the country’s fifth general strike this year against the cash-strapped government’s planned pension and labor reforms.

Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse troublemakers who threw chunks of marble smashed off metro station entrances and set rubbish bins on fire. Running clashes continued along a major avenue — lined with shuttered shops and banks — as rioters armed with wooden clubs made repeated sallies against police.

However, Tuesday’s clashes were far more muted than the riots that erupted during a previous general strike on May 5, when three people died after becoming trapped in a bank torched by rioters.

Riot police chased demonstrators into a main subway station. An AP photographer saw police detain one young man in a metro carriage, spraying him with pepper spray.

The demonstration ended soon after, and rioters melted away towards the central Exarcheia district — a traditional anarchist hangout.

No arrests were immediately reported, but AP reporters saw at least six people being detained. One motorcycle policeman was injured by a chunk of marble thrown at him, while rioters smashed bus stops and phone booths.

The violence came as some 10,000 people took part in a demonstration organized by the country’s two main labor unions and fringe left-wing groups. An earlier separate march by some 6,000 members of the Communist Party-backed PAME union ended peacefully.

Tuesday’s strike shut down public services, disrupted transport, left hospitals operating on emergency staff and pulled all news broadcasts off the air. The country’s airports, however, remained open, and international flights were operating normally although nearly 100 domestic flights were canceled.

Unions fiercely oppose draft legislation submitted to parliament last week that would increase retirement ages and make it cheaper for companies to fire workers. The measures — which include raising women’s retirement age to 65 to match those of men and require 40 years of social security contributions for a full pension — are aimed at fixing the country’s debt crisis, which has shaken the entire euro zone.

“They’ve declared war on you, fight back!” PAME demonstrators chanted as they walked down a major avenue in the center of the capital.

Greece is caught in a major debt and deficit crisis; it avoided bankruptcy last month only after receiving the first installment of a €110 billion ($136 billion) emergency loan package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

In return, Athens passed painful austerity measures, cutting pensions and salaries and raising consumer taxes, and is now pushing through labor and social security reforms.

Parliament is to start discussing the proposed reforms Tuesday, in a debate expected to last more than a week. Despite opposition from several of its own lawmakers, the center-left government — which holds a seven-seat majority in the 300-member house — is expected to win the final vote.

Tension mounted once more in the country’s main port of Piraeus early Tuesday morning, where hundreds of PAME demonstrators attempted to prevent tourists and locals from boarding ferries to Aegean islands, even though a court had declared seamen’s participation in the strike illegal.

“They want to put us in a straitjacket so we work for free all our lives so that some can have their wealth and get very rich at our expense,” said Sotiris Poulikogiannis, a protester in Piraeus. “We don’t accept this. Day by day we’ll grow stronger and more aware of how to overturn this situation.”

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