ATHENS – An attempt to ticket violators of COVID-19 health measures in a plaza in the neighborhood of Nea Smyrni exploded into a series of violent confrontations after police were accused of attacking people.
The incidents spilled over into a second day after rival parties to the ruling New Democracy said police were out of control and some 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest brutality seen on video.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, trying to restore order as the anger intensified, appealed for calm but critics stepped up their assault on the police and his government, charging him and the police with overreacting.
A police station was attacked with firebombs as rage poured out during an extended third lockdown that saw the government impose stricter measures, including on public gatherings, and a police officer was seriously injured in clashes.
“Blind rage leads nowhere,” Mitsotakis said. “These scenes of violence must be the last,” as an investigation into how the troubles were triggered when a squad of police were sent to the neighborhood was promised.
Hundreds of youths threw Molotov Cocktails and stones at police, who tried to repel them with water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades in what the newspaper Kathimerini said turned the neighborhood into a war zone.
At one point in the clashes, rioters pulled down a police officer riding in a column of motorcycle police. Dozens rushed at him, hitting him with clubs and stones and raining blows on him. Other officers eventually succeeded in repelling the mob, and the injured police officer was taken to hospital.
“It should serve as a wake-up call that the life … of a young policeman was endangered,” Mitsotakis said. “At this point everyone must display restraint and calm,” he said as opposition parties poured on the criticism.
Police said another two officers were injured, and 10 people were arrested on suspicion of taking part in the riots. There were no immediate reports on injured demonstrators but parked vehicles were extensively damaged.
Before the demonstration started, police said they had confiscated quantities of firebombs destined for use by violent protesters. They said several participants in the march were armed with iron bars.
The march to the Nea Smyrni police station on March 9 was in reaction to the initial confrontation two days earlier during police enforcement of pandemic lockdown measures in a square.
Video showed a police officer repeatedly beating with a baton a man who didn't appear to have engaged in any threatening behavior. Police said officers had earlier been attacked by dozens of people who objected to them trying to issue fines to people who weren't obeying lockdown restrictions.
WILD IN THE STREETS
The mass protest that became an ugly scene also saw groups of hooded men, typically used by anarchists already enraged the government won’t give in to demands by hunger-striking terrorist killer Dimitris Koufodinas for a prison transfer, launch a series of violent attacks with firebombs and stones.
They also set fires to dumpsters and conducted extensive vandalism, the paper said, the battle royale almost as violent as two weeks of riots in 2008 in anger over a police special guard shooting dead a teeenager in the Exarchia neighborhood.
Mitsotakis accused main opposition SYRIZA of undermining the measures to limit the spread of the Coronavirus by calling for protests even as tension rose, the Leftists not mentioning police used heavy tactics when they were in power.
“SYRIZA’s official call for participation in citizen protest rallies in the midst of the pandemic is an act of great irresponsibility,” Mitsotakis said, adding that it was “an affront to our healthcare workers struggling day and night.”
SYRIZA, ousted by the Conservatives in July 7, 2019 snap elections, said that the government was in a state of “panic due to the incompetence of his government,” as COVID-19 cases hit a record high.
“We inform him that the only one who has the power to motivate citizens – regardless of party affiliation – to mobilize in the middle of a lockdown, is his policy and himself,” it added.
The Leftists said it wasn’t their urging but the government’s lockdown policies that go back-and-forth and are driving permanent closings of many non-essential businesses, restaurants, bars and taverns drawing people out.
The debate will spill over into Parliament on March 12 where lawmakers will grill Mitsotakis who will respond to a question brought by SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who has stepped up criticism to slow a free fall in polls.
It added that the only thing that is bringing people out into the streets is his Government spokesman Aristotelia Peloni suggested that SYRIZA’s youth wing was leading the clashes with police although the city has a heavy presence of anarchists who regularly tangle with law enforcement.
Other government officials also said that people may have brought on the violence and attacked police, not the other way around, despite video evidence showing otherwise, indicating the heavy response was needed for order.
Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis pledged that any offenses will be dealt with by criminal prosecution and disciplinary action, saying there “is no excuse for police violence.”