An elderly man shot himself in central Athens yesterday, 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 from the Greek parliament.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said: "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."

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".

Riot police clashed with demonstrators later on. It was reported the man cried out that he did not want to leave his children in debt.

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 9am, 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.

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.