Pensioner shoots himself dead in Athens square in protest at debt crisis

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An elderly Greek man killed himself in Athens’ busiest square yesterday in protest at the country’s debt crisis.

The incident sparked debate in parliament and an anti-austerity group called for a peaceful protest, accusing politicians of driving people to despair with harsh cuts implemented to secure vital international bailouts.

The 77-year-old drew a handgun and shot himself in the head near a metro exit on central Syntagma Square, which was crowded with commuters during the morning rush hour, police said.

Police said a hand-written note was found on the retired pharmacist’s body in which he attributed his decision to the debt crisis. Greece has seen an increase in suicides over the past two years of economic hardship, during which the country repeatedly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

After the suicide, about a dozen written messages were pinned to the tree under which the man shot himself, some reading “It was a murder, not a suicide,” and “Austerity kills.”

A government spokesman described the incident as “a human tragedy,” but said it should not become part of political debate.

Anti-austerity activists who had held daily protests for months last year at Syntagma Square blamed the suicide on the cutbacks.

Greece has relied on international rescue loans since May 2010. To secure them, Athens implemented harsh austerity measures, slashing pensions and salaries while repeatedly raising taxes.

But the belt-tightening worsened the recession, and led to thousands of job losses with one in five Greeks now unemployed.

Meanwhile Greek athletics has suspended all operations because of funding cuts, a month before the country holds the Olympic flame lighting ceremony.

The governing board of the track and field federation made the decision after an emergency meeting.

Federation president Vassilis Sevastis had said the body was considering the suspension due to deep cuts in state funding. He said coaching staff and suppliers had not been paid for months due to budget reductions.