Sat, Mar 10, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Education reform riots paralyze Athens

AFP , ATHENS

Greek police fought a pitched battle on Thursday with around 100 young protesters which saw the center of Athens shut down for several hours amid a hail of stones and heavy clouds of tear gas.

Forty people were detained during the clashes in front of the parliament building that broke out on the sidelines of a student demonstration against higher education reforms, as deputies inside debated a new university law.

The youths, most wearing hoods or masks to avoid identification, burned down a guard post near parliament, destroyed two bank cash dispensers and threw stones at the Grande Bretagne, one of Athens' top hotels.

Police responded with tear gas and made 11 arrests among the 40 people detained.

Ten officers were slightly injured, the police said, and Greek media reported that at least 12 protesters were also hurt.

The clashes spread to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, forcing two presidential guards that normally mount a 24-hour vigil over the monument to flee.

"Every democratic citizen condemns the sacrilege that occurred today at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said.

The protesters also fired slingshots, breaking windows at the parliament building, state television reported.

A left-wing youth group that co-organized the demonstration accused police of "blind violence."

"This is a black day in the history of our country, when the center of Athens ran red with the blood of protesters ... defending their right for an education that serves real needs," the Left Coalition youth wing said.

The incidents occurred at the end of a protest march involving thousands of university students, the latest of a weekly series of demonstrations against the government's higher education reforms.

Another protest was held in Salonika, Greece's second-largest city. The students, backed by labor unions, left-wing parties and the union of university teachers Posdep, are demanding the withdrawal of a government bill tightening the academic and fiscal management of public universities.

The government's parliamentary majority approved the controversial university bill on Thursday.

"We will not back down, and even if this bill passes into law these reforms will not be applied," 23-year-old protest organizer Dimitris Fakalis said.

The students say the bill, coupled with plans to permit the operation of private universities -- a measure requiring constitutional amendment -- threatened to undermine public higher education. Under the current constitution, higher education is exclusively public and free tuition is guaranteed to all Greek citizens. The students say the changes introduce private-sector standards and would make higher education prohibitively expensive for poorer families.

More than 200 university faculties have been occupied by students for over two months, leading to concern the academic year will be lost.

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