Colleagues help a police officer whose uniform caught fire after being… (Milos Bicanski, Getty Images )
Reporting from Athens — Wielding wooden batons, rocks and gas bombs, protesters clashed with police Wednesday in demonstrations across Greece against austerity measures.
The clashes erupted out of a massive march in central Athens that drew tens of thousands of workers balking at belt-tightening measures prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for the country's broken economy.
The protest reflected the still high level of volatility in countries making large cuts in services through austerity programs. Other governments threatened by the economic crisis include Portugal and Ireland.
The march was part of a 24-hour nationwide strike that paralyzed the country's transportation system and other services.
In Athens, at least 20 protesters were arrested and five were injured in scuffles as police officers fought with militant youths, firing rounds of tear gas to disperse them and fend off attacks on Parliament and the nearby Finance Ministry.
As the clashes spread, demonstrators, including a brass band and cyclists with their own grievances against the Socialist government, streamed into side streets to flee the fighting. Bystanders and tourists also sought cover, and plumes of acrid gray smoke smothered the capital for more than two hours.
In one instance, self-styled anarchists wearing colorful ski masks and black-and-white kaffiyeh scarves threw gasoline bombs, causing a police officer's uniform to catch fire. He was rescued by colleagues.
"This is the start of a new round of protest," the civil service union ADEDY, which helped organize the strike, said in a statement. "We oppose policies that are driving families and pensioners into poverty, increasing unemployment and delaying a return to growth."
The strike grounded more than 100 flights and suspending all sea and ferry services. Public hospitals operated with skeleton staffs and employees of some news organizations joined the strike.
Popular tourist sites, including the Acropolis, were also closed.
Debt-choked Greece was given a $146-billion bailout loan by the EU and the International Monetary Fund in May on condition of sweeping salary cuts and economic overhaul intended to revive the country's finances.
But Greece's unemployment rate has surged to 13.9%. The economy shrank by 4.5% last year, deepening the country's recession.
This week, the country's retailers association, ESEE, forecast that about 120,000 small and medium-size businesses would be bankrupt by the end of the year, depriving state coffers of up to $10 billion in tax revenue.
For crisis-weary Greeks, such shortfalls spell the precursor to additional austerity measures.
"We're mad. We're frustrated. We're like a kettle that's boiling," said Sotiris Martalis, a state teacher and union leader with ADEDY.
"Add more fire and pressure and we're up in flames like Egypt and Tunisia."
Carassava is a special correspondent.