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Pensioner's suicide triggers protests

Notes are pinned on a tree in Syntagma Square calling the government a 'murderer' and urging people to 'take up arms.'

By Nicholas Paphitis

A 77-year-old Greek retiree shot himself dead in Athens' main square Wednesday, blasting politicians over the country's financial crisis in a suicide note that triggered violent clashes hours later between police and anti-austerity protesters.

Riot police fired tear gas and flash grenades after protests attended by some 1,500 people turned violent, and youths hurled rocks and petrol bombs outside Parliament. Authorities reported no injuries or arrests.

Retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas drew a handgun and shot himself in the head near a subway exit on central Syntagma Square which was crowded with commuters, police said.

"A pharmacist ought to be able to live comfortably on his pension,» said Vassilis Papadopoulos, a spokesman for the «I won't pay» group. «So for him to reach the point of suicide out of economic hardship means a lot. It shows how the social fabric is unraveling."

Greece has relied on international rescue loans since May 2010. To secure them, Athens implemented harsh austerity measures, slashing pensions and salaries while repeatedly raising taxes. But the belt-tightening worsened the recession and led to thousands of job losses that left one in five Greeks unemployed.

"As a Greek, I am truly shocked,» Dimitris Giannopoulos, an Athens doctor, said before the protest. «I am shocked because I see that (the government is) destroying my dignity ... and the only thing they care about are bank accounts."

Police said a handwritten note was found on the retired pharmacist's body in which he attributed his decision to the debt crisis.

According to a text of the note published by local media, the man said the government had made it impossible for him to survive on the pension he had paid into for 35 years. «I find no other solution than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food,» read the note. Police did not confirm whether it was genuine.

Greece has seen an increase in suicides over the past two years of economic hardship, during which the country repeatedly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

By Wednesday evening, dozens of written messages had been pinned to the tree under which the man shot himself, some reading: «It was a murder, not a suicide,» and «Austerity kills."

Hundreds of protesters made their way across the street from the square to outside Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, chanting: «This was not a suicide, it was a state-perpetrated murder» and «Blood flows and seeks revenge."

Dozens of riot police stood guard.

Papadopoulos, the protest organizer, said the suicide shows Greeks can take no more austerity.

"This suicide is political in nature and heavy in symbolism. It's not like a suicide at home,» Papadopoulos said in a telephone interview. «There was a political suicide note, and it happened in front of a clearly political site, Parliament, where the austerity measures are approved."

More protests are planned Thursday. [The Associated Press]

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