THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Clashes broke out Tuesday at a police station just outside Greece's second-largest city of Thessaloniki between riot police and residents of a nearby Roma settlement protesting the police shooting of a teenage driver during a chase over an unpaid gas station bill.
Protesters smashed a riot police bus and set fire to tires and an excavator vehicle on a nearby road, while riot police responded with volleys of tear gas. Shots could be heard, and riot police asked journalists in the area to move farther, saying protesters were firing from hunting rifles.
The clashes came after a 34-year-old police officer appeared in court over the shooting early Monday of a 16-year-old Roma boy who allegedly drove off from a gas station without paying the bill.
The boy, whose identity has not been officially released but was identified by relatives as a member of the Roma community, was hit in the head and hospitalized in critical condition in Thessaloniki.
Before Monday's incident, protest marches already were planned to mark the anniversary of the 2008 fatal police shooting of a teenager in Athens that sparked Greece’s worst riots in decades. Annual marches marking the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos on Dec. 6 often turn violent.
The police officer who appeared in court Tuesday on a felony charge of attempted manslaughter with possible intent and a misdemeanor count of illegally firing his weapon has been suspended from duty.
He said he opened fire because the pickup truck the teenager was driving tried to ram one of the pursuing police motorcycles. The police officer told the prosecutor during his brief court appearance that he had fired “because the lives of my colleagues were in danger.”
The officer was given until Friday to prepare his defense before appearing before an investigating magistrate.
During his preliminary hearing, scuffles broke out outside the courthouse between police and protesters who held up a banner reading: “It wasn’t the gas, it wasn’t the money, the cops shot because he was Roma.” Protesters threw rocks and large wooden sticks at police, who responded with tear gas.
Some protesters set dumpsters on fire, while others attempted to put out the smoldering trash with water bottles.
The shooting occurred outside Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, at around 1 a.m. Monday. Officers from a motorcycle patrol chased the teenager’s pickup truck after a gas station employee reported an allegedly unpaid bill of 20 euros ($21).
In a statement Monday, police said the driver allegedly ignored orders to stop and repeatedly ran red lights, ignoring the officers' orders to pull over. The police statement said the driver attempted to ram one of the police motorcycles, “placing the lives of the police officers in immediate danger.” It said two shots were fired in an attempt to stop the vehicle.
Panagiotis Ramos, who was among the protesters outside the courthouse and identified himself as a family friend of the wounded teenager, dismissed the police version that the aim of the shooting had been only to stop the truck.
“It was a racist shot. It wasn't one, but two,” Ramos said. “The shot was straight. He was trying to finish him off.”
On Monday night, about 1,500 people took part in a protest march organized by left-wing and anarchist groups in central Thessaloniki. Some smashed shops and threw Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
Police detained six people after the end of the march.
Several hundred people also took part in a peaceful demonstration Monday in central Athens over the teen’s shooting as well as a past incident in which a Roma man also was shot during a police chase. The demonstrators in Greece’s capital had a banner, reading: “They shot them because they were Roma.” Brief clashes broke out with police after the protest ended.
Members of the Roma community in Greece and human rights activists frequently accuse Greek authorities of discriminating against Roma. Several Roma men have been fatally shot or injured in recent years during confrontations with police while allegedly seeking to evade arrest for breaches of the law.
By COSTAS KANTOURIS Associated Press
Vassilis Kommatas in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.
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