Anti-austerity violence mars opening of ECB`s new HQ

Violent clashes between anti-capitalist activists and German police marred the inauguration of the European Central Bank`s new headquarters Wednesday, with police cars set ablaze, rocks thrown and windows smashed.

Frankfurt: Violent clashes between anti-capitalist activists and German police marred the inauguration of the European Central Bank`s new headquarters Wednesday, with police cars set ablaze, rocks thrown and windows smashed.

Riot police used water cannon, made five arrests and coralled an agitated crowd of around 500 demonstrators ahead of the ceremony in the 185-metre (605-foot) high, 1.3-billion-euro ($1.4-billion) twin-tower building in Frankfurt.

Eight police were wounded when protesters hurled rocks, and 80 officers were sprayed with an irritant gas, a police spokeswoman told AFP, while businesses and homes suffered property damage. 

Around 10,000 demonstrators -- protesting against eurozone austerity policies, and grouped under the "Blockupy" banner -- were expected to later converge on Germany`s financial capital, where police mounted one of their largest ever operations.

ECB president Mario Draghi rejected blame for the suffering brought by budget cuts and austerity policies amid the financial crisis in Europe, as he officially opened the skyscraper in the east of Frankfurt in a low-key ceremony. 

"As an EU institution that has played a central role throughout the crisis, the ECB has become a focal point for those frustrated with this situation," Draghi told the around 100 invited guests, as police helicopter circled the sky outside.

"This may not be a fair charge -- our action has been aimed precisely at cushioning the shocks suffered by the economy," he said. "But as the central bank of the whole euro area, we must listen very carefully to what all our citizens are saying."Violence had erupted early on, with several cars -- including seven police vehicles -- set ablaze. As dawn broke, convoys of police vans sped through the streets of the German banking capital with sirens blaring, as helicopters hovered overhead.

Police said they were bracing for more violence during day, describing many demonstrators as "aggressive and violent".

Their numbers were expected to swell to about 10,000 in the afternoon, with a special train of 800 activists due to arrive from the capital Berlin, and 60 buses expected from 39 cities across Europe.

Authorities have mobilised one of the biggest ever police deployments in the city.

Frankfurt has seen its share of street violence. At a rally in March 2012, a policeman was seriously injured when protesters went on the rampage in the city centre, causing around one million euros worth of damage. 

At a subsequent demonstration in May 2012, there were around 20,000 marchers, but the rally remained mostly peaceful as more than 5,000 police sealed off large parts of the city.Blockupy brings together anti-capitalist and anti-austerity protestors from across Europe. They camped out in tents at the foot of the ECB`s old Eurotower headquarters in Frankfurt for months in 2013.

The main rally Wednesday will also be attended by protest groups such as Attac, as well as trade unions, representatives from Greece`s governing leftist Syriza party, and Miguel Urban of Spain`s left-wing Podemos. 

Organisers denounced the violence, blaming a small minority of militant infiltrators. 

The Blockupy movement "had called for peaceful blockades," said one of its members, a lawmaker from the far-left Linke party, Hermann Schaus. 

"Clearly, there are people there who don`t belong to Blockupy, and I regret that immensely," Schaus said.

Blockupy regarded it as a success that the inaugural celebrations had been drastically downsized, he said.

"The most important thing is that people come together to rally against the crisis policies."

Eleonora Forenza, an Italian communist member of the European parliament, said it was "important to protest," blaming the ECB -- as a member of the much-hated "troika" of creditor institutions -- for the high level of unemployment in Italy. The inauguration ceremony was symbolic as the ECB`s staff already moved into the new building overlooking the Main river late last year.

Given the raging Greek debt crisis, the central bank decided to keep the celebrations relatively low-key. 

Until last year, the ECB, which took over monetary policy in the single currency area in 1998, had been housed in a skyscraper, known as the Eurotower, in downtown Frankfurt.

Work began in 2008 on the new headquarters, designed by Vienna-based architects Coop Himmelb(l)au.

Incorporating the historic Grossmarkthalle, a wholesale food market, the building was completed late last year, and the ECB moved into the premises shortly afterward.

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