Riot police, protesters clash at Acropolis

NICHOLAS PAPHITIS - Associated Press Writer

Riot police clashed with protesting Culture Ministry workers barricading the ancient Acropolis on Thursday, using tear gas to clear the entrance to Greece's most famous landmark.

But the monument remained closed for the rest of the day as guards there launched a strike in solidarity with the evicted protesters. Protest organizers said they would gather again at the Acropolis early Friday, but it was unclear whether they would attempt to block the entrance.

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 Oct. 31.

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 standoff unfolded, occasionally snapping pictures 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 program 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 iconic site — which attracts more than a million visitors annually — because, they say, the government has ignored a string of court rulings in their favor.

"If we are breaking the law by keeping the site closed, is it not also against the law for (the government) to leave us unpaid?" union representative Ioanna Maraveli asked.

But authorities are particularly sensitive to protests at the Acropolis, which is seen as an emblem of ancient democracy, particularly as the country largely relies on tourism for revenue.

"This is not just an issue of damage to Greek tourism, particularly under the current, difficult circumstances, it is also an issue of respect for this outstanding monument," government spokesman George Petalotis said.

Culture ministry officials insisted that all salary arrears would be paid.

Visitors who had traveled from far-flung countries were unimpressed by the protest.

"We think this is a shame. We will not recommend that people come to Greece," said Veronica Traverso, a tourist from Argentina standing with a friend outside the padlocked gates. "We are not to blame for Greece's troubles."

Traverso said she was due to leave the city in a couple of hours — her hopes of visiting the Acropolis dashed.

U.S. tourist Dave Walters, from Phoenix, Arizona, said he arrived Thursday on a cruise ship which was leaving in the evening.

"I don't understand. Greece has two main industries, tourism and shipping," he said. "They seem to be cutting their own throats, this is not going to bring tourists to Greece."