Tens of thousands turn out to protest the latest proposal for austerity cuts in salaries and pensions.
ATHENS - Tens of thousands of Greeks joined the second nationwide strike in three weeks Thursday, moving to bring the country to a near-standstill in a bid to show EU leaders meeting in Brussels that fresh austerity cuts being demanded by Greece's lenders would cripple society and further depress an already battered economy.
Protest rallies began peacefully but were disrupted when demonstrators broke away from the crowd near Syntagma Square outside parliament and threw rocks, bottles and firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas. A crowd, estimated by police at around 15,000 people, thinned out, some with tears streaming from their eyes. A rally by the Communist Party drew another 7,000 people, according to a police spokeswoman.
Unions said the turnout was about 40,000 people, double the official estimate.
Many demonstrators shouted abuse at the rows of the riot police.
"You're criminals, selling out your country for 600 euros a month," one man screamed at a group of officers. "Why are you doing it? Why?"
It was the latest in a wave of protests that appear to be gaining steam in southern European countries weary of austerity, particularly Portugal and Spain, where citizens have come out en masse to push against grinding cuts as their economies spiral lower.
The action comes as Greece's so-called troika of lenders -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission -- press Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to seal a package of austerity cuts of 13.5 billion euros (almost $18 billion). Those include new cuts in salaries and pensions as well as demands to streamline rigid labor laws that are seen as hurting the country's competitiveness.
The package, which is needed to unlock a 31.5 billion euro loan installment that Greece needs to stay solvent, has been delayed several times in the last two months as the government butted heads with the troika, citing concerns that those at the margins of Greek society, and the rising numbers of people who are falling out of the middle class, cannot take much more. Leaders hope to agree to final details of the austerity plan in coming days.
"Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair," said Yannis Panagopoulos, the head of Greece's largest private sector union. "The consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite," he said.
About 4,000 police officers fanned out in central Athens and near the parliament, where clashes broke out three weeks ago in the last nationwide strike between small groups of anarchists and people who hurled Molotov cocktails around Syntagma Square.
Transportation disruptions were expected throughout the country, with the subway in downtown Athens and taxi drivers halting most service.