ATHENS — At least three people were killed Wednesday in Athens when rioters set a bank ablaze during protests by tens of thousands of people over austerity measures demanded by a multibillion-dollar international bailout of Greece.
A 24-hour national strike morphed into the strongest -- and most violent -- show of defiance yet over the austerity plan as millions of workers walked off the job and thousands took to the streets to vent their anger against the government.
In Athens, at least 100,000 protesters stormed the sprawling grounds of Parliament, jeering at politicians and chanting, "Thieves! Thieves!"
Tempers flared when a group of workers in orange caps tried to break through a cordon of riot police. Authorities fired three rounds of pepper gas, but rather than retreat, the demonstrators retaliated, sparking a series of running street battles that quickly engulfed the capital in plumes of acrid smoke.
Black-clad anarchists also emerged from the meandering side streets of downtown, attacking security forces with rocks and homemade bombs.
Dozens of storefronts were shattered, and at least 10 banks were targeted along Athens' high-end Stadiou Street. Two buildings were set on fire, including a Marfin bank branch employing 20 people.
"We managed to get everyone out except two ladies," a firefighter at the site said. He said authorities were trying to determine the identity of the third victim, a middle-aged man.
Police later said one of the female victims had been pregnant. They said 12 people had been arrested and dozens hospitalized.
Although the situation had calmed down by early afternoon, at least 1,500 police officers remained deployed across Athens to prevent a flare-up of clashes.
The violence left Greek union leaders deliberating whether to press ahead with planned protests Thursday as Parliament votes on the government's austerity and reform measures.
Laden with about $400 billion in debt and a budget deficit equal to 13.6% of the gross domestic product, Greece has been struggling to claw its way out of a financial crisis that has pushed the nation to the brink of bankruptcy and imperiled the euro 11 years after the currency's inception.
Pressed for cash and after weeks of market turmoil, Athens announced a new raft of austerity measures in return for a $146-billion lifeline of loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to prevent Greece from facing a humiliating default.
The painful retrenchment plan has unleashed vociferous opposition from unions and social activists who view the new measures -- mainly sales tax increases and deeper cuts in pensions and public servants' pay -- as a savage attack on workers' rights.
"Everyone is furious," said George Pavlopoulos, a bespectacled bank employee and union representative.
"These measures leave no one untouched. We have no other option but to revolt."
The demonstrations, organized by labor unions, mark the first major test for the Socialist government since Prime Minister George Papandreou unveiled the budget cuts dictated by the EU and the IMF in return for the bailout.
Papandreou surged to power in October after trouncing a scandal-ridden center-right government with promises to protect salaries and pensions. The new government announced a $4.5-billion stimulus package designed to resuscitate the economy through infrastructure projects and environmentally sustainable development.
Yet, just weeks later, Athens backpedaled on all its pledges, shocking the EU and world markets with a budget deficit initially reported as 12.7%, the highest among the 16 countries that use the euro, which are obliged to hold deficits under 3%.
Facing spiraling costs for borrowing and a debt repayment later this month, the Greek government decided to accept the three-year rescue package of loans from other Eurozone countries and the IMF.
But the public backlash presents a severe test of Athens' political will.
"With angry people on the streets, Papandreou's job will become so much more difficult," said George Kirtsos, a publisher and political commentator. "His reforms won't be derailed, but they will require more time to implement."
Wednesday's national strike paralyzed Greece, grounding commercial planes and keeping this sun-kissed nation of 11 million people isolated.
The Acropolis and scores of other archaeological sites were closed, as were schools and state buildings. Hospitals and public utilities operated with skeleton staffs.
Union brass described the general strike as necessary to get Greece's leaders to listen to their concerns.
"The country has to be paralyzed for the government to cave in to our demands," said Sotiris Martalis, a leading member of ADEDY, Greece's civil servants union. "This isn't about rowdy Greeks making a bit of noise. This is a matter of survival for us, and we're determined."