Three people were killed in a fire set by protesters in the branch of Marfin Egnatia Bank in the centre of Athens on Wednesday during a march against government austerity measures in central
Athens.

“People have the right to protest but there is a difference between protest and murder” – Prime Minister George Papandreou

The fire fighters who discovered the bodies, say the victims were employees of the bank. “We have found three dead people in the building that is on fire,” the fire brigade said in a statement.

A Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters during the riots in the Greek capital set the bank alight. Initially the fire in the building had been small and most of the people in it had managed to escape.

It is believed that around 10 people had failed to be evacuated from the building on time and were left trapped in it. After the fire was extinguished, the fire fighters discovered the bodies of two women and one man.

A giant plume of dark grey smoke rose over the central Stadiou Avenue where the two-storey commercial building, housing a branch of the Marfin bank burned.

Tens of thousands of Greeks marched to parliament, testing the government’s resolve in enacting the deep budget cuts in return for the billions of euros in EU/IMF aid. In the some of the worst violence since the Socialist Papandreou government came to power in October, striking demonstrators pelted police with rocks, chunks of marble and bottles,
set garbage cans on fire and tried repeatedly to storm parliament, shortly
before lawmakers began a debate on the belt-tightening measures.

Masked youths threw petrol bombs, broke shop windows and shouted “Murderers” and “Burn the parliament”, in a sign of swelling public anger at the government’s plans for painful wage and pension cutbacks. Officials said two other buildings in the centre of the capital had been set on fire during the protest.

Demos Michalopoulos, a 48-year-old real estate agent working in the city talked to Neos Kosmos “I was coming home from the office and Athens was eerily quiet, everything was closed due to the national strike. It was like 15 August [national holiday] the whole of Athens
was empty and suddenly a fire” Mr Michalopoulos said.

“Imagine, that the first news of the fire came from the BBC because the Greek media was on strike, and later from our Greek media outlets, no one was out there except the strikers and police” Mr Michalopoulos added.

Greek news media called off their strike to report on the events, spurred by the deaths of three people at the Marfin Bank in Syntagma square.

Mr Michalopoulos feels that a “radical minority is lighting fires.”

“The working person may wish to protest, but they do not burn buildings, they know that people work in them it is the same people who caused the riots in 2008” he said.

He went on to say that he understands the frustration of those who strike and says that many “working people” seek some justice they want to see “certain people responsible for the financial catastrophe punished by the law.”

“Here the government was making announcements about the austerity measures last week and [the previous prime minister], Karamanlis, was at the beach sunning himself!”

The city centre, especially Syntagma square, Stadiou avenue and the troubled neighborhood of Exarhia, was a battleground in the early afternoon, as police clashed with small groups that stayed behind following the nationwide strike and massive demonstration to protest the recently announced draconian measures.

Though it had disipated, the smell of tear gas and burning plastic dumpsters still hung in the air.

Greek media also reported that clashes had broken out at the Athens Polytechnic and the surrounding area. There was also reports of damage to numerous shops and cars in the streets surrounding the Polytechnic.

The three deaths, two women and one man, appear to be from asphyxiation as the building was set alight from Molotov cocktails. This is an unprecedented development that has shocked the country and likely to mark a watershed regarding the use of petrol bombs by protesters.

 Most of the clashes by late afternoon were by splinter groups (some of whom smashed shop windows in various parts of the city centre) much to the disappointment and anger of the majority of demonstrators who were hoping for a firm and unequivocal expression of anger and disillusionment at recent developments. As expected, most of the
discussions in the streets but also by commentators in the news focused on the deaths in Syntagma.

 Prime Minister George Papandreou condemned the protest on national television “People have the right to protest but there is a difference between protest and murder” Papandreou said. “We stand by those who lost loved ones, there are three families grieving now” he said.

Police estimated that 27,000 people were at the march. But eyewitnesses said there were at least 40,000 — easily the biggest protest since Greece was first hit by a debt crisis late last year.

This is the third joint strike between public and private sector workers this year. They have grounded flights, shut shops and brought public transport to a standstill. “These measures are horrible,” said Maria Tzivara, a 54-year-old saleswoman.

“I’m afraid I’ll get fired or my salary will be cut. It will be very tough.” Prime Minister George Papandreou submitted an austerity bill to parliament on Tuesday that envisages 30 billion euros ($40 billion) in new savings through deep cuts in wages and pensions and a rise in value-added tax.

The conservative opposition has vowed to vote against the 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.

Until now, anti-austerity protests had been fairly peaceful but the violence on Wednesday echoed that seen in riots that shook the country in December 2008 after a teenager was killed by police.