Deaths place Greece on ‘edge of abyss’

The deaths yesterday of three bank employees, who were caught in a fire when rioters threw Molotov cocktails at their branch, overshadowed a protest in Athens against the austerity measures being pushed through by the government. The bodies of two women, Angeliki Papathanasopoulou aged 32 and Paraskevi Zoulia 35, and 36-year-old Epaminondas Tsakalis were found inside Marfin Egnatia Bank at 23 Stadiou Street after firefighters put out a blaze that started when hooded assailants threw firebombs inside the building. Coroner Filippos Koutsaftis said that all three had died from asphyxiation. Five of their colleagues were rescued after making it onto a second-floor balcony. These were the first deaths in such circumstances during a public protest since January 1991 when four people died when another building in central Athens caught fire. Witnesses said that protestors marching past the building ignored the bank employees’ cries for help and that a handful even shouted anti-capitalist slogans. The incident was condemned by Prime Minister George Papandreou and the other political parties. «Every citizen has the right to protest but they do not have the right to use murderous violence,» said Papandreou, who added that the state would support the families of the three victims. «The perpetrators will be made to pay for their action.» Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the city center as part of a general strike by the private and public sectors to protest drastic public spending cuts and tax hikes that are being introduced to deal with Greece’s debt crisis. Papandreou defended his government’s decision to ask Greece’s fellow eurozone members and the International Monetary Fund to supply 110 billion euros in emergency loans even though this means they have to be accompanied by painful reforms. «We took difficult but responsible decisions to save pensions, salaries, jobs, savings and the efforts of workers,» said Papandreou. «Now is the time for responsibility. It should also be the time for consensus.» Although Papandreou called for a meeting of party leaders later this week, consensus between the parties appeared to be fragile. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras was broadly supportive of the premier’s effort to bring the political forces together. But the Communist Party suggested that the attack on the bank was «useful for those who try to subjugate the people with lies and sycophancies» while Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras said that the government’s decision to rely on the EU-IMF mechanism is «fueling social clashes.» The nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) turned its fire on the leftist parties. It took a statement from President Karolos Papoulias to best sum up Greece’s dire situation and the frustration that many people are feeling with the political system. «Our country has reached the edge of the abyss,» he said. «It is everybody’s responsibility that we do not take the step toward the drop. Responsibility is proved in action, not in words. History will judge us all.» Marfin Bank also issued a statement in which it laid the blame for yesterday’s incidents at the feet of Greece’s politicians. «We hope that the perpetrators will be arrested and punished,» it read. «But the greatest responsibility lies with the moral instigators who, unfortunately, will never be punished.»

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