Greece shaken by retiree's suicide in central Athens

An elderly man shot himself in the head Wednesday in central Athens, drawing an emotional response from Greeks who flooded the area in a spontaneous anti-government protest.

The 77-year-old retired pharmacist killed himself in busy Syntagma Square, just 100 metres (yards) from the Greek parliament, which for two years has been the main rallying point for protests against the austerity measures designed to haul Greece from its fiscal crisis.

"It's tragic that one of our citizens has taken his own life. In these difficult moments for our society, government and citizens, we must support people who find themselves in distress," said Prime Minister Lucas Papademos in a statement.

About 1,000 people poured into the area early in the afternoon, rallied by messages on social media.

They left flowers, candles and handwritten messages at the foot of a cypress tree. Some of the notes called for an "uprising of the people".

"Rise up, your fate will be all of ours," said one.

"May this death be the last of an innocent citizen. I hope the next victims will be the treacherous politicians," said another.

Most of the demonstrators gathered silently and refused to speak to the media, though some chanted the word "murderers".

Police closed the street in front of parliament.

The man, whose identity has not been released, shot himself in mid-rush hour, just before 9:00 am (0600 GMT), outside the Syntagma metro station.

Police said a suicide note had been found in the man's pocket, but did not disclose what it said.

News reports said the note accused the government of leaving the man in penury and compared the administration to the regime imposed by Greece's Nazi German occupiers in 1941.

Witnesses heard the man cry out that he did not want to leave his children in debt, according to media reports.

The head of the association of Athens pharmacists told news website the man had been a pharmacist until 1994, when he sold his business.

Police said they had opened an investigation into his motives. Another police source said the man had cancer.

Government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis called the suicide a "human tragedy" and said "the exact circumstances" were unknown.

The incident had inevitable political reverberations in a country gearing up for parliamentary elections expected in early May.

"I'm shaking. Unfortunately it's not the first victim. We have a record suicide rate. We need to rescue Greeks from their hopelessness," said Antonis Samaras, head of New Democracy, the conservative party that is leading in polls.

Evangelos Venizelos, head of the socialist Pasok party that holds a majority in the coalition government, called on colleagues to refrain from "political commentary" on the incident.

"We need to reflect on the country's situation and show solidarity and togetherness," he said.

Depression and suicides have increased in Greece amid a crisis that has sent unemployment soaring and salaries and pensions plummeting, though the country's suicide rate is lower than the European average.

In 2009, it stood at three per 100,000 people, about a third lower than the European average, according to Eurostat.

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks have lost their jobs in the last year, and unemployment currently tops one million, a quarter of the workforce.

Authorities have been applying a tough economic overhaul since 2010, when Greece was forced to appeal to the EU and the IMF for bailout loans after its borrowing costs hit the roof.

To secure loan payments, Greece has been forced to drastically cut state spending and has slashed civil servant salaries and pensions by up to 40 percent.

  • Thursday #sgroundup: Body found of boy who made first call from Korea ferry: report 22 minutes ago
    Thursday #sgroundup: Body found of boy who made first call from Korea ferry: report

    Here are today’s top trending stories in case you missed them.

  • Look, don't touch: Flickr photo of the day 11 hours ago
    Look, don't touch: Flickr photo of the day

    If there's one car that's particularly sought-after among today's well-heeled car collectors, a Ferrari 250 would be it. Usually it's the GTO variant, like the 1963 that sold for a record $52 million last year. A 250 of any sorts demands unfathomable cash, however, which is why we can but gawk at this 250 Testa Rossa. It's as close as any mere mortal will ever come to owning one.

  • Peeling out at Octane Academy, the free driving school for Ford ST owners 12 hours ago
    Peeling out at Octane Academy, the free driving school for Ford ST owners

    Buyers of Ferraris or Jaguars are used to perks from manufacturers – including racetrack lessons to help master their exotic machines. But for enthusiasts on a tighter budget, the Ford ST Octane Academy might be the sweetest deal in motoring: Buy a Ford Fiesta ST or Focus ST hatchback, and the reward is a free day of training at one of America’s longest, most-lavish road courses.

  • David Moyes statement after Man United firing
    David Moyes statement after Man United firing

    Statement released by David Moyes on Wednesday, a day after Manchester United announced he left as manager after less than a season in charge.

  • Pirates kidnap three on Singapore tanker off Malaysia
    Pirates kidnap three on Singapore tanker off Malaysia

    Armed pirates boarded a Singapore-managed oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca, kidnapping three Indonesian crew and stealing some of the vessel's shipment of diesel fuel, the International Maritime Bureau said Wednesday. The attack occurred early Tuesday off Malaysia's west coast, said Noel Choong, head of IMB's Kuala Lumpur-based piracy reporting centre. The diesel oil tanker was believed to be en route to Myanmar. "IMB is aware of the attack on the Singapore-managed ship in the Malacca Straits.

  • Indonesian general says his flashy watch is a fake
    Indonesian general says his flashy watch is a fake

    JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia's military commander said critics who called him out for wearing an especially luxurious watch should be quiet because the timepiece is actually a cheap Chinese fake.