Elderly Greek kills self in busy Athens square

A Greek Orthodox priest holds a memorial service at the site where an elderly man shot himself at Athens' main Syntagma square, on April 4, 2012.
AP Photo

(AP) ATHENS, Greece - A Greek retiree shot himself dead in the busiest public square in Athens during morning rush hour Wednesday, leaving a note police said linked his suicide with the country's acute financial woes.

The 77-year-old retired pharmacist drew a handgun and shot himself in the head near a subway exit on central Syntagma Square which was crowded with commuters, police said. The square, opposite Greece's Parliament, is a focal point for public protests.

The incident jolted public opinion and quickly entered political debate with the heads of both parties that back Greece's governing coalition expressing sorrow.

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Anti-austerity groups issued calls through social media for peaceful protests in Greece's two main cities later Wednesday, accusing Greek politicians of driving people to despair with harsh cutbacks implemented to secure vital international bailouts.

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 currently unemployed.

"As a Greek I am truly shocked," Athens doctor Dimitris Giannopoulos said. "I am shocked because I see that (the government is) destroying my dignity ... and the only thing they care about are bank accounts."

Police said a handwritten 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.

Police did not release his name and offered few other details.

Soon after the suicide, about a dozen written messages had been pinned to the tree under which the man shot himself, some reading "It was a murder, not a suicide," and "Austerity kills."

A Greek Orthodox priest performed a service at the spot as a couple of dozen passers-by and tourists looked on.

Government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis described the incident as "a human tragedy," but said it should not become part of political debate.

"I don't know the exact circumstances that led that man to his act," Kapsis said at a daily press briefing. "I believe we must all remain calm and show respect for the true events, which we do not yet fully know."

Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the Socialist party said the suicide "is so overwhelming that it renders any political comment unbecoming and cheap."

"Let us reflect on the condition of the country and of our society in terms of solidarity and cohesion," said Venizelos, who served as finance minister for eight months before resigning to lead the Socialists.

Conservative party head Antonis Samaras said the incident highlighted the urgency of getting Greece out of the crisis.

"Unfortunately, this is not the first (suicide)," he said. "They have reached record levels."