Greek government under fire over handling of riots

ATHENS Sun Dec 14, 2008 7:19pm IST

A riot policeman faces protesters during riots in central Athens December 14, 2008. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

A riot policeman faces protesters during riots in central Athens December 14, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

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ATHENS (Reuters) - A week of violence in Greece has taken its toll on the fragile conservative government, with opinion polls showing on Sunday many think authorities mishandled the worst rioting in decades.

The Dec. 6 killing of a 15-year-old boy by police unleashed a wave of unrest by thousands of students and anarchists across the country, feeding on growing anger over political scandals and the impact of a global recession on Greece's economy.

While the violence has generally subsided in the past few days, small groups of hooded youngsters hurling fire bombs are still rampaging at night in the capital, fighting running battles with riot police and smashing shops.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has pledged to ensure security, rebuffing calls for early elections, but he has drawn widespread criticism for not acting quickly and decisively to tackle the revolt.

An opinion poll published by Ethnos newspaper on Sunday said 83.3 percent of Greeks were unhappy with the government's response to the violence.

Discontent was high -- 65.6 percent -- even among supporters of Karamanlis' New Democracy party, which has a one-seat majority in parliament.

Another survey, in Kathimerini daily, put disapproval of the government at 68 percent with 60 percent of those polled saying the riots were a social uprising rather than an isolated outburst by a small fringe of violent protesters.

NIGHT-TIME ATTACKS

Eight days of clashes have caused 200 million euros ($265.3 million) of damage in Athens alone. The city was calm on Sunday but broken shop windows bore witness to the latest, sporadic riots overnight, when a few hundred youths wearing gas masks attacked a government building, four shops and two banks.

"I'm tired of coming to the shop every night to check the damages. You think it's going to calm down and then it starts again," said Anna Pavlidou, manager of a central Athens mobile phone store that has been repeatedly attacked and looted.

"The government should assume its responsibilities and resign. It didn't handle it well. If it had, we wouldn't have 355 damaged shops in Athens. I mean we won't be able to open until Christmas," she said.

"Someone has to understand the deeper reasons for this -- poverty, high unemployment -- and solve it radically."

Rocked by a series of corruption scandals, Karamanlis has appealed for calm and vowed to protect people and property.

A policeman charged with killing Alexandros Grigoropoulos has been jailed along with a colleague pending trial, while more than 400 protesters have been detained over the unrest.

In central Athens, where even in calmer times barely a week goes by without a demonstration, riot police are manning street corners at night, especially in the leftist Exarchia neighbourhood where the teenager was shot.

But in a country where many have an instinctive disregard for authority and memories are still vivid of police heavy-handedness during the 1967-74 military rule, the government has taken no emergency security measures.

Nor has it tried to address protesters' deeper grievances about the slowing economy and political incompetence.

"The government reacted nervously to the killing. It was already in a very difficult position before the riots and this situation can only make things worse," said Kostas Ifantis, head of the Hellenic centre for European Studies.

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