Skirmishes in Athens as general strike sweeps Greece

Riot police react to petrol bombs thrown by masked youths in Syntagma Square, Athens.
Riot police react to petrol bombs thrown by masked youths in Syntagma Square, Athens.PHOTO: REUTERS
Masked demonstrators clash with a riot police in Syntagma Square, Athens.
Masked demonstrators clash with a riot police in Syntagma Square, Athens.PHOTO: REUTERS
 Riot police dodge petrol bombs thrown by masked protesters.
Riot police dodge petrol bombs thrown by masked protesters.PHOTO: REUTERS
A protester covers his face to avoid breathing tear gas.
A protester covers his face to avoid breathing tear gas.PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters walk amid tear gas smoke during clashes.
Protesters walk amid tear gas smoke during clashes.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (AFP) - Thousands marched as a crippling general strike against pension reforms swept Greece on Thursday, with hooded youths lobbing firebombs at riot police in scattered skirmishes in the capital.

Some 40,000 people from all walks of life joined protests in Athens and another 14,000 demonstrated in Thessaloniki for the 24-hour industrial action, police said, as riot officers in the capital fired tear gas in response to the Molotov cocktails.

A journalist was hospitalised after being beaten on the sidelines of the demonstration. Police detained two people at the end of the protest, but not in relation to this incident.

It was the broadest protest since the arrival to power of leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras just over a year ago.

Thursday's general strike - the third in as many months - has stopped train and ferry services and grounded dozens of flights.

The pensions overhaul, a key part of Greece's latest economic bailout, has sparked a major backlash against embattled Tsipras.

The widespread opposition has led to the rare sight of white-collar staff marching alongside workers.

Lawyers, notaries, insurers and engineers have joined the protests en masse in action the media have dubbed the "necktie movement".

"They have massacred my generation. We can no longer get married or have children," said Dina, a 32-year-old who owns an underwear shop and was marching in Athens, referring to five years of austerity cuts under Greece's successive economic bailouts.

Tsipras is accused of breaking his promise to eliminate austerity when he came to power last year.

"The pledges were hot air," read black balloons carried in the protest.

One group marched behind a banner in Chinese opposing the imminent privatisation of the Piraeus port authority by Chinese shipping giant COSCO.

Many traders shut their shops in solidarity, petrol stations were closed and taxis pulled off the streets. Hospitals were also operating on an emergency footing.

Farmers have formed protest hubs at dozens of locations on national highways, intermittently blocking traffic with tractors, continuing demonstrations that have been going on for two weeks.

On Tuesday, they blocked freight trucks from travelling into Bulgaria and Turkey, causing long lines on the respective borders.

The strikers are furious at government plans to lower the maximum pension to €2,300 (S$3,600) a month from €2,700 currently and introduce a new minimum guaranteed basic pension of €384.

"It's true that the pension system requires reform but this reform cannot make it viable," lawyer Thomas Karachristos told AFP.

In his case, Karachristos says next year he will be paying 88 per cent of his salary in taxes and pension contributions.

Tsipras's leftist administration also wants to merge pension funds and increase social security contributions by both employers and staff.

Critics say the new system penalises those who dutifully pay their pension contributions over a lifetime of work and will encourage undeclared labour practices.

But Greece must save €1.8 billion from state spending on pensions under a three-year bailout signed with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in July.

The Tsipras government has warned the nation's pension system will soon collapse without the reform, which is expected to be put to a vote later this month in parliament, where the prime minister has only a razor-thin majority.

However, the government has rejected claims that the disputed overhaul raises questions about its survival.

The government only holds a majority of 153 in the 300-seat parliament.

"The government majority is strong and cohesive," government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili said Tuesday.