Deadly riots over new austerity measures engulfed the streets of Athens on Wednesday, and three people were killed as angry protesters tried to storm parliament, hurled Molotov cocktails at police and torched buildings.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets as part of nationwide strikes to protest new taxes and government spending cuts demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other European nations before heavily indebted Greece gets a euro110 billion ($141 billion) bailout package of loans to keep it from defaulting.
Three people died after being trapped in a burning bank along the main demonstration route in central Athens — the first deaths during a protest in Greece since 1991, when four people trapped in a burning office building were killed. Another five were rescued.
"A demonstration is one thing and murder is quite another," Prime Minister George Papandreou thundered in Parliament during a session to discuss the spending cuts he announced Sunday. Lawmakers held a minute of silence for the dead.
"Nothing less than the future of Europe, and with that the future of Germany in Europe, is at stake," Merkel told lawmakers. "We are at a fork in the road."
On the streets of Athens, demonstrators chanted "Thieves, thieves!" as they attempted to break through a riot police cordon guarding Parliament and chased ceremonial guards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the building.
Tear gas drifted across the city center as rioters hurled paving stones and fire bombs at police. Firefighters extinguished blazes in at least two buildings — the bank and a branch of the Finance Ministry — while protesters set up burning barricades and torched cars and a fire truck.
The marches came amid a 24-hour nationwide general strike that grounded all flights to and from Greece, shut down ports, schools and government services and left hospitals working with emergency medical staff. The Acropolis and all other ancient sites were closed and journalists also walked off the job, suspending television and radio news broadcasts.
But media later broke the strike to report on the deaths and the violence during the protests.