Riot police battle with culture ministry officials at the Acropolis

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The Independent Online

Riot police clashed with culture ministry workers who shut down the Acropolis monuments in a protest over unpaid wages yesterday.

Up to 100 workers on short-term contracts had kept the ancient citadel closed since Wednesday morning, complaining they were owed up to 24 months' worth of back pay and faced dismissal when their contracts expire on 31 October.

The protesters barricaded themselves inside, padlocked the entrance gates and refused to allow visitors in until their demands were met. Police in riot gear arrived after a court order said the protesters were hindering access to the site and its 2,500-year-old marble temples.

"Riot police and violence won't break the strike," the protesters chanted, clinging to the gates. But police broke into the site after sawing through the metal fence, then used pepper spray to clear journalists covering the standoff from the main gate. One protester was led away in handcuffs to a waiting police bus.

Dozens of bemused tourists who had arrived to visit the ancient site looked on as the stand-off unfolded, occasionally taking photographs of the riot police. "We know the workers have a right to protest, but it is not fair that people who come from all over the world to see the Acropolis should be prevented from getting in," said Spanish tourist Ainhoa Garcia shortly before the clashes broke out.

Greece is in the midst of a tough austerity programme which has cut public workers' salaries and trimmed pensions in an effort to pull the country out of a severe debt crisis. The austerity plan has led to a series of strikes and demonstrations as workers' unions protest the cutbacks.

Guards and workers at archaeological sites have long been complaining they are owed months of back pay, and they have shut down the Acropolis before in protest, though usually only for a few hours at a time.

They say they had no other option but to close the site – which attracts more than a million visitors annually – because, they say, the government has ignored a string of court rulings in their favour. Culture ministry officials insisted that all salary arrears would be paid. Rallying workers have vowed to continue with protests.