Cop fought cop early yesterday, as riot police used tear gas against protesting police, firefighters and coast guards who had blocked access to the Economy Ministry off Syntagma Square. The government took a tough, uncompromising stance against what it termed a «mutiny by an armed force.» By contrast, the conservative New Democracy and the Communist parties unconditionally backed the protesters, calling government actions «authoritarian,» «fascist» and an «imposition of martial law in the center of Athens.» Police, firefighters and the coast guard were just three among many groups of public employees protesting on the streets, demanding higher wages. As they are not allowed to strike, a protest rally was staged by off-duty personnel in uniform on Wednesday afternoon. At about 7 p.m. on Wednesday, the protesters, numbering around 1,000, decided to block the entrance to the Economy Ministry on Nikis Street. Allegedly, their colleagues who guarded the ministry were roughly manhandled and then thrown out. Police Chief Fotis Nasiakos called the police union leaders and asked them to allow access to the ministry. The unionists replied that they had not blocked the building and that they had merely chosen to stage a protest at the building’s entrance. Just before 1 a.m. yesterday, Brigadier Yiannis Tsironis, head of the Athens police force, arrived at the site of the protest, accompanied by two prosecutors. Tsironis read an order by the Attica Police Headquarters barring gatherings of uniformed security forces outside the ministries of Economy and Finance, the General Accounting Office, the Parliament and the prime minister’s office. He gave the protesters 10 minutes to comply. But the protesters refused to go and several of them allegedly shouted obscenities at the prosecutors. Dimitris Kyriazidis, the president of the Panhellenic Confederation of Police Officers (POASY), called on riot police staged nearby not to move against their colleagues. After the 10 minutes were up, riot police moved in and dispersed their colleagues, making heavy use of tear gas. A policewoman was rushed to a nearby hospital with respiratory problems but soon left to rejoin the protest. Fights between the riot squad and their protesting colleagues lasted over two hours. Police unionists accuse the government of reneging on a promise, made by former Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, to designate their job as a hazardous profession. Giorgos Floridis, the current public order minister, said yesterday it was impossible to satisfy this demand, which would halve the working years required to get a full pension. «Is it possible for policemen who graduate from police academy at 21 to get a full pension by 35?» he asked Parliament yesterday. Floridis had a long altercation with Communist MP Antonis Skyllakos, who handed him empty tear gas canisters as proof of the «martial law» imposed. «You must answer whether your party adopts and covers for actions that are very close to mutiny. For yesterday, we had a mutiny by an armed force,» said Floridis. Opposition parties protested, but Floridis persisted and repeated the phrase. Prime Minister Costas Simitis backed his minister in a cabinet meeting yesterday. «Greece is a state ruled by law and, just as the government cannot transgress the law, neither can citizens. Police unionists cannot be an exception,» he said.