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New Greece austerity bill gets initial approval
Greek lawmakers grants initial approval to new austerity bill
By The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' Greek lawmakers have granted initial approval to a new austerity bill whose spending cuts and tax hikes have sparked fury on the streets of Athens.

The bill received a 154-141 vote late Wednesday. A second vote on the bill's articles will be held Thursday in the 300-member Parliament. Only after that vote will the bill have passed.

Before the vote, riots broke out in central Athens during a demonstration by about 100,000 people on the first of a two-day general strike to protest the bill. The measures include new tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants and the suspension of collective labor contracts.



THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' Hundreds of rioting youths smashed and looted stores in central Athens on Wednesday during a massive anti-government rally against painful new austerity measures that erupted into violence.

Outside parliament, demonstrators hurled chunks of marble and gasoline bombs at riot police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Police said at least 38 officers and three civilians were hospitalized, while 33 people were detained for questioning or arrested for alleged involvement in the rioting.

"We just can't take it any more. There is desperation, anger and bitterness," said Nikos Anastasopoulos, head of a workers' union for an Athens municipality.

Parliament will vote Wednesday night and Thursday on a critical new bill of spending cuts and tax increases, including the suspension of tens of thousands of civil servants in a country where many people work for the government.

International creditors have demanded these reforms before they give Greece its next infusion of cash. Greece says it will run out of money in a month without the euro8 billion ($11 billion) bailout money from its partners that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund.

Greeks already are reeling from more than one-and-a-half years of austerity measures that have cut into their salaries and pensions. That has prompted some lawmakers from the governing Socialists to indicate they might vote against the latest proposed cutbacks.

Wednesday's violence in Athens spread across the city center, as at least 100,000 people marched on the first day of a two-day general strike that unions described as the largest protest in years. About 3,000 police were deployed on the capital's streets, authorities said.

Police and rioters held running battles through the narrow streets of central Athens, as thick black smoke billowed from burning trash and bus-stops.

Most of the protesters marched peacefully, but crowds outside of parliament clashed with police who tried to disperse them with repeated rounds of tear gas. A gasoline bomb set fire to a presidential guard sentry post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament, while running clashes broke out in several side streets near the legislature and the capital's main Syntagma Square.

Nearby, groups of hooded, masked protesters tore chunks of marble off building fronts with hammers and crowbars and smashed windows and bank signs. Scuffles also broke out among rioters and demonstrators trying to prevent youths from destroying storefronts and banks along the march route. Vendors sold swimming goggles to rioters, who used them to ward off the tear gas.

Thousands of people watched the skirmishes, some standing on kiosk roofs to get a better view. Trash was strewn around the streets, with protesters setting clumps of it on fire.

In Greece's second city of Thessaloniki, protesters smashed the facades of about 10 shops that defied the strike and remained open, as well as five banks and cash machines. Police fired tear gas and threw stun grenades.

In Parliament, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told lawmakers that Greeks have no choice but to accept the hardship.

"We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis," he said. "It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense."

Lawmakers are to vote on the latest austerity measure bill in principle on Wednesday night, and by article on Thursday. The bill will officially pass only after the second round of voting. The measures include new tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants and the suspension of collective labor contracts.

A communist party-backed union has vowed to encircle Parliament Thursday in an attempt to prevent deputies from entering the building for the final vote.All sectors ' from dentists, hospital doctors and lawyers to shop owners, tax office workers, pharmacists, teachers and dock workers ' walked off the job Wednesday on the first day of the strike. Flights were grounded in the morning but some resumed at noon after air traffic controllers scaled back their strike plan from 48 hours to 12.

Dozens of domestic and international flights were still canceled. Ferries remained tied up in port, while public transport workers staged work stoppages but kept buses, trolleys and the Athens subway system running to help protesters.

Some municipal workers said they had no option but to take to the streets.

"We can't make ends meet for our families," said protester Eleni Voulieri. "We've lost our salaries, we've lost everything and we're in danger of losing our jobs."

Demonstrations during a similar 48-hour strike in June left the center of Athens convulsed by violence as rioters clashed with police on both days while deputies voted on another austerity package inside Parliament.

Piles of garbage festered on Athens street corners despite Tuesday's government order to garbage crews to end their 17-day strike. Earlier in the week, private crews removed some trash from along the planned demonstration routes, but mounds remained on side streets, along some of the march routes and in city neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, European countries are trying to work out a broad solution to the continent's deepening debt crisis, before a weekend summit in Brussels. It became clear earlier this year that the initial bailout for Greece was not working as well as had been hoped, and European leaders agreed on a second, euro109 billion ($151 billion) bailout. But key details of that rescue fund, including the participation of the private sector, remain to be worked out.

____

Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.


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