In Athens the day was calm. Then came night

Greek riot police fought street skirmishes with protesters in the heart of Athens last night after parliament agreed a draconian package of cuts and tax rises to qualify for an EU bailout. Although the running battles looked briefly dramatic, there was no repeat of the violence of Wednesday in which three people died when a bank was fire-bombed by a handful of anarchist demonstrators.

Last night's clashes began when white-helmeted riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to clear what had been a mostly peaceful demonstration of about 5,000 people from the main avenue in front of the parliament building. Protesters retaliated with stones and plastic bottles and by burning rubbish bins.

Police broke up the crowd and chased them down the main shopping streets of central Athens firing tear gas and stun grenades. "The police just startmoving forwards and chasing us," said one demonstrator," Lazarus Lakakou, 43. "There was no provocation."

Earlier, Athens seemed to have slumped into a stunned calm after Wednesday's deaths. Hundreds of people mounted a vigil outside the bank where three employees died after a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a downtairs window.

The victims, all in their 30s, were named as a man and two women, one of whom was pregnant. "What can I say?" read the card on one bouquet of roses deposited in front of the blackened entrance on Stadiou Avenue. "You cretins of anarchy," railed another mourner. "And now you are hiding."

The victims had been trapped in the Marfin bank in the centre of Athens and overcome by smoke fumes after the building was set alight by Molotov cocktails hurled by a small group of masked protesters. The dead were named yesterday as Paraskevi Zoulia, 35, Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, 32 and Epaminondas Tsakalis, 36.

Mr Tsakalis was found dead in a stairwell and is thought to have choked to death while trying to escape. Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, who was four months pregnant, was found dead on a balcony. All three were relatively junior bank officials. Eight other people escaped.

President Karolos Papoulias had earlier urged all Greeks to avoid aggressive words and actions that might send the country into a spiral of violent unrest. "I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage," he said. "Our country has come to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don't step over the edge."

Bank unions decided to call a one-day strike yesterday in memory of their dead colleagues and blamed the government for their deaths.

However, on balance, the deaths – the first in Greek political protests for almost 20 years – seemed to have calmed, rather than worsened the nation's mood. Both government officials and union leaders pointed out that Wednesday's violence, which erupted after a mostly peaceful demonstration by 60,000 people, was the work of a disaffected minority of a few dozen youths.

The bank workersÕ union, OTOE, called a strike in protest and said Òserious political responsibilityÓ for the three deaths lay with the government, which it claimed had miscalculated the extent of popular anger among the public against the proposed IMF and EU rescue package.

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