Riots as Greeks told: 'prepare for hardship'

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VIOLENCE erupted on the streets of Athens yesterday as demonstrators clashed with riot police during protests against proposed austerity measures for the financially crippled nation.

• A Greek policeman is set alight by a protester's petrol bomb during May Day riots in Athens sparked by the government's economic crackdown. Photograph: Getty Images

There were a series of confrontations between black-clad anarchists and police, who used tear gas to control crowds after being attacked with petrol bombs and stones.

The Greek government's finance ministry was the subject of several attacks during the May Day rallies, while shop windows were smashed and a television broadcasting van burned out.

Foreign Office officials were "monitoring" the scenes, but have not advised holidaymakers to cancel planned trips to Greece.

Instead, visitors were warned they face further disruption on Wednesday, when flights in and out of the nation's airports will be cancelled during a 24-hour strike.

In an attempt to save its ailing economy, the Greek government is poised to announce more sweeping spending cuts through 2012 to win support for a 100 billion loan from the European Union and International Monetary Fund for the next three years.

Details of the cuts will not be revealed until the loan has been secured, but the venture is almost certain to usher in wage cuts, tax rises, and pension reductions. Prime Minister George Papandreou has told citizens to brace themselves for a period of hardship.

If it fails to get the loan, Greece will almost certainly default on its debts, a situation that would send shockwaves throughout Europe.

Full details of the bail-out are expected to be revealed today if the Eurozone leaders finally sign off the deal.

Nikos Diamantopoulos, who was taking part in a rally organised by pro-Communist unions, condemned what he regards as draconian measures, saying: "They are death. How people are going to live tomorrow, how they're going to survive, I do not understand."

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Left Coalition, said: "The Greek people do not owe anything to anybody."

Union members marched towards the Athens offices of the European Union and continued on to the US Embassy. They chanted: "Hands off our rights! IMF and EU Commission out!"

According to police estimates, around 17,000 people took part in the demonstration. Ten suspected rioters were arrested, but no serious injuries were reported.

In the northern city of Thessaloniki, where over 5,000 people demonstrated, there were brief confrontations, with business premises attacked, shop windows broken and cash machines vandalised.

Conservative opposition party New Democracy and the right-wing populist LAOS have been critical of the government but are seen as likely to support the package of measures. Left-wing parties, however, have vowed to escalate protests.

Around three million Britons visit Greece each year, but a spokesman for the Foreign Office said there were no travel restrictions in place.

The current advice states: "Visitors should expect regular strikes and demonstrations throughout Greece during April and May.

"A 24-hour strike by private and public sector workers in Greece will take place on 5 May. There will be no flights to or from any Greek airport during this period. Passengers are advised to contact their airline for further information."

Government spending in Greece has run-up debts equalling 115 per cent of the gross domestic product, resulting in a lowering of their economy's credit rating. Last week, the debts were downgraded to "junk" status, causing the value of the Euro to fall, and sparking fears of a "contagion effect" in the vulnerable economies of Spain and Portugal.