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Greece on edge of the abyss

The fire brigade were dousing the last flames from the bank building when I arrived on the scene.

Twenty yards away stood two women seemed to be deeply shocked and one fell to her knees as she recounted the rumours that three people had died in the fire.

Her friend tried to console her and both wept as Greece's financial crisis produced violence on the streets of its ancient capital.

A distraught woman in her early sixties arrived screaming "my child, my child," in a vain search for news about a missing loved one who worked in the bank.

Later Andreas Vgenopoulos, the chairman of Marfin Investment Group, the parent company of the Marfin Egnatia bank, visited the normally busy Stadiou Street branch accompanied by bodyguards.


As protesters jeered and shouted insults, riot police intervened with more teargas.

I have seen a lot of demonstrations in the 13 years that I've covered Greece. But I've never seen the tragic loss of life that I witnessed in the cradle of democracy yesterday. The victims -- two women (one of them reportedly four months pregnant) and a man -- were working only a few hundred yards from the Greek parliament.

A woman who works in a bookstore across the road told me that a group of protesters had broken away from the main demonstration before smashing the bank's windows and tossing petrol bombs. The building was soon engulfed in flames.

"Two women workers from the bank came out on to the second-floor balcony and were screaming for help," she told me. "It was horrific. There was nothing we could do. The fire brigade came relatively quickly, as streets in the area had been closed off for the demonstration, but I hear that innocent working people have died. These people are thugs. They are murderers."

A couple of hours earlier, I had watched as tens of thousands of largely peaceful demonstrators opposed to the government's latest wave of cutbacks and proposed pension reforms marched towards parliament.

As often happens in Greece, the largely peaceful but vocal crowd soon turned violent. Small groups of mainly young men, mingled with the protesters and launched attacks against riot police outside the parliament. Some threw rocks, stones or chunks of masonry; others hurled petrol bombs. Riot police replied with teargas and pepper spray.

The majority of those causing the violence, who were a small minority of the mass demonstration, appeared to be aligned to extreme left-wing fringe groups. There were also self-styled anarchists and anti-establishment protesters.


Some had sledgehammers or iron bars to smash windows. Others used sticks or concrete as projectiles against riot police.

One group of about 200 protesters even tried to storm parliament as MPs were debating the austerity measures. Riot police fended them off with round upon round of teargas and pepper spray.

The area around Syntagma (Constitution) Square, across from parliament was littered with broken glass, chunks of brick, rocks and pieces of marble.

The violence and the tragic loss of life tarnished the otherwise peaceful mass protest against the austerity measures. For democracy it was a black day that most ordinary Greeks condemn.