- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ATHENS — Youths hurled rocks and firebombs at riot police in central Athens on Tuesday as a general strike against new austerity measures brought the country to a standstill.

Lawmakers were embarking on their second day of debate on austerity measures that must be passed in votes Wednesday and Thursday if Greece’s international creditors are to release another batch of bailout funds to see it beyond the middle of next month.

The package must be passed so the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can release the next installment of Greece’s $156 billion bailout loan.

Without that $17 billion installment, Greece faces the prospect of a default next month — a potentially disastrous event that could drag down European banks and hurt other financially troubled European countries.

The austerity drive is hugely unpopular in Greece, and the demonstration in central Athens soon degenerated into violence.

For several hours, police fired volleys of tear gas and stun grenades at masked and hooded youths who pelted them with firebombs and chunks of smashed marble. Police said 18 people were detained, five of them later arrested, and that 21 policemen were injured.

The clashes, which involved as many as 20,000 protesters, erupted at the start of a two-day strike called by unions furious that a $40 billion austerity program will slap taxes on minimum-wage earners and other struggling Greeks.

The measures come on top of other spending cuts and tax increases that have sent Greek unemployment soaring to more than 16 percent.

“The situation that the workers are going through is tragic and we are near poverty levels,” said Spyros Linardopoulos, a protester with the All Workers Militant Front union blockading the port of Piraeus. “The government has declared war and to this war we will answer back with war.”

Meanwhile, the scale of the strike bought large parts of the Greek public sector to a halt. Doctors, ambulance drivers, casino workers and actors at a state-funded theater were among those joining the strike or holding work stoppages for several hours.

An ongoing strike by electricity company workers kept up rolling blackouts across Greece.

Many Greeks insist that politicians are responsible for the crisis and that workers should not be forced to pay for it.

Even lawmakers from the governing Socialists have been upset over the latest measures, and Prime Minister George Papandreou has struggled to contain an internal party revolt.

He shuffled his Cabinet this month to try to ensure his party’s support for this vote, but the Socialists still have only a five-seat majority in the 300-member parliament.

Mr. Papandreou urged lawmakers Monday to fulfill a “patriotic duty” by voting in favor of the measures, but two of his own lawmakers have suggested they won’t.

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