Athens: A fire-bomb attack on a bank in Greece killed at least three people on Wednesday as police fought pitched battles with striking protesters furious at brutal budget cuts designed to avert national bankruptcy.
Hooded youths hurled petrol bombs at stores and businesses in the centre of the capital Athens and demonstrators tried to storm Parliament during the general strike, as the rioting spread to the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Police said two women and one man died at a branch of the Marfin bank which caught fire after rioters broke a window and threw Molotov cocktails inside. Around 20 more people had to be ushered to safety.
"Nobody has the right to violence and particularly violence that leads to murder," Prime Minister George Papandreou told Parliament as he condemned "a raw murderous act".
At least two other buildings, one used by tax officials, caught fire in other fire-bomb attacks on the margins of the protests.
Athens underground stations were shuttered and the international airport deserted as tens of thousands of union members rallied on the eve of a vote in Parliament on the planned cuts and tax hikes.
The general strike was the first major test of the Socialist government`s resolve to push through unprecedented measures since agreeing a EUR 110 billion (USD 143 billion) EU and IMF debt bailout at the weekend.
Papandreou`s insistence that the measures are vital for the nation`s survival failed to dissuade unions from paralysing public services.
After rallying in two separate demonstrations in central Athens, unionists marched on parliament where a vote on the measures will be held Thursday.
"They`re taking everything from me, I don`t know how I`m going to get by," said 61-year-old Anargyros Bizianis, a municipal worker in the Athens suburb of Piraeus who earns EUR 900 a month.
As the protesters tried to break through a police line in front of Parliament, they first hurled stones and bottles of water, prompting officers to respond with tear gas.
Full-scale clashes then erupted, with riot police trying to disperse the crowds with baton-charges. During the unrest, one protester threw a petrol bomb.
Youths also went on the rampage in other parts of the capital, with several dozen youths hurling petrol bombs at stores, smashing shop windows and bus shelters with iron bars.
Athens police chiefs mobilised all their forces, including those not on active duty, by declaring a general state of alert.
The protesters in Thessaloniki targeted stores and banks in the city centre before they were dispersed by the anti-riot police.
A group of about 200 communists had stormed the Athens Acropolis on Tuesday, unfurling banners reading "Peoples of Europe, Rise Up."
"The Greek people have been called to make sacrifices while the rich pay nothing," said Giannis Panagopoulos, head of the GSEE private sector union.
A government official downplayed the unrest saying that "for years there`s been strikes and protests in this country without much consequence."
But markets reacted with alarm as Greek stocks closed down 3.9 percent.
Pushed to the brink of default, the government agreed at the weekend to slash spending and jack up taxes in return for EUR 110 billion in loans over three years from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
Among the major measures, the government is to cut 13th and 14th month bonus pay for civil servants and retirees; require three years more for pension contributions; and raise the retirement age for women to 65.
After months of hesitation, eurozone countries and the IMF agreed to lend Greece billions at below market rates after concerns the Athens crisis could trigger a knock-on effect elsewhere.
Fighting accusations of holding up the bailout, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the crisis underlined the need for an overhaul of EU fiscal rules.
"The future of Europe and the future of Germany within Europe is at stake," she told a debate on Berlin`s decision to lend EUR 22.4 billion to Greece.