Blast Rocks Athens As Civil Unrest Grows

Anthee Carassava, in Greece
Blast Rocks Athens As Civil Unrest Grows

A powerful bomb blast has rocked the Greek capital, gutting a government building in the latest show of violence ahead of critical national elections.

No injuries have been reported after the explosion, which was triggered by a makeshift firebomb.

But police in Athens said the early-morning blast caused extensive damage to the soaring building, housing the government's Public Sector Reform Ministry.

There was no previous warning, police said. Nor has there been any claim of responsibility by a rash of extremist groups that have recently revived attacks on symbols of power and wealth after a long hiatus during Greece's debt crisis.

The blast comes less than a week after a similar attack targeted the office of Costas Simitis, a former prime minister credited with bringing Greece into to Europe's single currency fold in 2001.

Days later, a 77-year-old pensioner shot himself dead in daylight outside Parliament, saying his debts had left him no way out .

Over the weekend mobs of militant protesters stormed a tiny television studio in northern Greece , pelting the news host with eggs and yoghurt for airing the views of far-right politicians.

Visually arresting, the grainy footage went viral on YouTube and featured prominently on international newscasts. 

But in Greece, it - on top of the violence and anger gripping the country - signified something different and more telling.

"People are mad. And perhaps justifiably so after so many years of austerity," said Yiorgos Karatzaferis, the leader of a small far-right party.

"With elections nearing, though, the problem is that when voters vote in anger, when they go to the ballot box thinking 'I'll show you, you idiots', the result may prove dangerous: the next day may prove even worse than the previous."

That is exactly what is at stake in Greece's upcoming elections, the most decisive in this country's recent history.

Lucas Papademos , the technocrat prime minister leading a provisional coalition government since November, looks poised to announce the date this week. The national poll is expected by mid-May.

Unofficially, though, campaigning has already begun with political adverts making their first appearance on prime time television and politicians timidly pressing the flesh in public rallies.

Locked out of international markets, Greece has relied almost exclusively on foreign credit since its European peers and the International Monetary Union cast Athens' first financial lifeline of 110 billion euros in May 2010.

The exchange? A rash of tax hikes, salary and pension cuts that have pushed Europe's poorest over the edge.

Unemployment has surged to over 20%; one in five Greeks have been made homeless; crime has increased by a whopping 125% in the last year alone; and suicides, the cruellest possible toll exacted from the Greek crisis, have doubled.

"Holding elections against such a backdrop isn't wise," a senior government official told Sky News on condition of anonymity. "It's risky."

Indeed. With social resentment swelling, voters are increasingly turning to smaller, fringe parties as a way to protest, polls show. They have also started planning more demonstrations and strikes in the coming weeks.

Already this week, striking seamen prepared for a showdown with the government, vowing to keep ferries docked for two days ahead of the Eastern Orthodox Easter weekend.

The government has since been considering emergency measures.

Still, the biggest challenge will come on May 1 when traditional May Day protests are expected to morph into massive anti-austerity rallies.

"It will be a massive security drill," said a senior police official. 

"We expect a lot of people out there, venting years of anger."

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