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Greek protest against budget cuts turns violent

Spasms of violence shook Greece’s capital on Wednesday as demonstrators armed with gasoline bombs, stones and steel rods clashed with riot police, marring a massive protest against a new batch of proposed budget cuts that officials say are needed to stave off a devastating debt default.

Later in the day, lawmakers passed the measures on a first vote, 154 to 141. The 300-member Parliament must approve the measures a second time before they can become law, a move expected Thursday.

PHOTOS: Anti-austerity rally in Greece turns violent

The clashes in the streets of Athens grew out of a protest march that had at least 70,000 crisis-fatigued workers swarming the grounds of Parliament, raising their fists, waving banners and chanting their defiance in the face of unyielding austerity efforts.

As crowds grew, chaos began to unfold.

Bands of black-clad youths — some wearing gas masks, others ski goggles — charged into the marching crowds, hurling Molotov cocktails at heavily armed riot police. Self-styled anarchists took crowbars to nearby banks, shop windows and luxury hotels. Dumpsters and street signs were uprooted from concrete pavements, and a presidential sentry post just feet from the entrance of the sprawling Parliament building was set ablaze.

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For more than three hours, riot police and militant youths fought running battles, leaving the ancient metropolis scarred with shattered glass, mounds of marble chunks torn off pavements and scattered bags of trash, which have been rotting on the streets for more than two weeks because of a garbage collectors’ strike.

At least 28 protesters were detained and more than 40 people, mainly police officers, were injured. The violence was among the worst sparked by the recent wave of sit-ins and demonstrations.

As protesters watched the coughing and teary-eyed bystanders flee the city center and thick clouds of acrid, black smoke wafted over Syntagma Square, there was a creeping sense of deja vu.

It was only in June that similar riots ripped through Athens before Parliament passed another controversial austerity bill and a drawn-out summit of European leaders approved a second bailout package for Greece to keep the debt-laden nation afloat through 2015.

At stake then was the fifth installment of a nearly $150-billion rescue loan European peers and the International Monetary Fund patched together last year to prop up the near-insolvent Greek economy.

At stake now is the sixth portion of the loan, plus a revised deal on the second bailout prompted by Greece’s failure to meet deficit reduction targets set by its international lenders.

European leaders have been wrangling for months over what to do with several near-bankrupt nations in the region. They are expected to reshape Greece’s second bailout deal at a summit over the weekend.

But while differences among Europe’s top paymasters, Germany and France, seem to have narrowed, a final deal remained uncertain.

On Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy headed to Frankfurt, Germany, to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading European and International Monetary Fund officials in preparation for the summit.

Delays in resolving the crisis have heightened fears that bad debt building up across Europe could infect international banks.

A failure by Greece to pass the new austerity measures, including added tax hikes and wage and salary cuts, could imperil disbursement of multibillion-dollar rescue funds, pushing Athens to declare bankruptcy within weeks.

“It’s a make-or-break moment,” said Ilias Nikolakopoulos, a political science professor at University of Athens. “Problem is, the government has gone politically bust.”

So even if the measures are passed in a scheduled vote Thursday, “it’s unlikely the government will hold.”

A lawmaker from the ruling Socialist party resigned this week in opposition to the controversial bill; two more have vowed to follow, leaving the government teetering on the verge of collapse. The party controls a razor-thin four-seat majority in Parliament.

Trapped in a deepening recession and rising unemployment, few Greeks on the streets Wednesday seemed sympathetic to the Socialists’ failing political fortunes.

“Last year we took to the streets demanding the government amend the austerity measures,” said Nikos Xanthopoulos, a burly 40-year-old civil servant. “Now we want this government to go.”

PHOTOS: Anti-austerity rally in Greece turns violent

Carassava is a special correspondent.


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