By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
Three people were killed in a fire in central Athens on Wednesday after protesters marching against austerity measures threw petrol bombs into a local bank branch in the worst violence to hit the country since riots in 2008. Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of the capital, clashing with police decked out in full riot gear, who responded with repeated rounds of tear gas and flash bombs. The violence is a blow to Prime Minister George Papandreou's plans to push through tough budget cuts that were demanded by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in exchange for a 110 billion euro aid package unveiled on Sunday.
Officials said two men and a women had died of asphyxiation in a two-storey commercial building that housed a branch of the Marfin bank. A financial crimes office and local government building were also set on fire.
"On initial evidence, it seems the death was caused by asphyxiation after Molotov cocktails were thrown," parliamentary president Fillipos Petsalnikos told lawmakers as a debate began on an austerity bill that foresees 30 billion euros in austerity measures including wage and pension cuts and tax hikes.
"Dramatic incidents are taking place in the centre of Athens," Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou said. "The government is doing everything possible, on every level."
Police put the march at roughly 30,000 people. But eyewitnesses said there were more than 50,000 -- easily the biggest protest since Papandreou's took office last October and began introducing austerity measures.
Hundreds of black-hooded anarchists roamed the streets, smashing store windows and hacking chunks of marble off buildings to throw at police.
Although they were behind the worst of the violence, other protesters joined them in pelting police with bottles and trying to storm parliament.
Presidential guards, who usually stand immobile in front of parliament, left their posts during the worst of the clashes.
Some of the marchers had dispersed by mid-afternoon, but many were still in the streets, which were littered with burning garbage containers. Police continued to fire tear gas, which rose in clouds above the centre of the capital.
A bookstore and a McDonald's restaurant were among businesses that had their windows smashed on the central Stadiou Avenue, where the bank branch was set on fire.
BLOW TO GOVERNMENT
The aid is intended to calm markets and give the government time to overhaul an uncompetitive economy plagued by corruption, and bring down a yawning deficit that totalled 13.6 percent of national economic output last year.
But the euro currency and Greek assets have been pummelled on concern that social unrest could thwart government plans to push through the measures, and on fears that Greece's woes could spread to other euro zone countries such as Portugal and Spain.
The conservative opposition has vowed to vote against the austerity bill, dooming hopes of a national political consensus on the measures.
The government enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament and expects to pass the legislation this week, but Wednesday's violence is a worrying sign.
In past months anti-austerity protests had been fairly peaceful, but Wednesday's violence echoed that seen in the 2008 riots, which were sparked when police killed a teenager.
The public and private sector workers' strike grounded flights, shut shops and brought public transport to a standstill.
"I agree with the strikes. If people don't react, don't protest, how will things change?" said 70-year-old Apostolos Kolokythopoulos, a private sector pensioner who lives on less than 1,000 euros a month.
Maria Tzivara, a 54-year old saleswoman, said she feared for her job. "These measures are horrible," she said.
The centre-left daily Eleftherotypia warned on Wednesday that young Greeks would rise up if the government did not do something to give them hope.
"If nothing is done, the explosion of the angry and the disappointed will sweep everything away," the paper said. "Have we forgotten December 2008 and become complacent?"//Reuters
(Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou, George Georgiopoulos, Harry Papachristou and Ingrid Melander; Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)