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Greece approves austerity amid Athens riots

Update: February, 13/2012 - 11:41

ATHENS – Greek lawmakers approved a new round of drastic austerity measures late on Sunday after a long day of street battles between police and protesters left dozens injured and Athens buildings ablaze.

The deputies defied the 100,000-strong turnout in Athens and Thessaloniki and approved another round of stringent budget measures requested by Greece's international creditors in return for a multi-billion rescue fund.

"Of 278 deputies present, 199 voted for, and 74 against," Parliament Speaker Philippos Petsalnikos said after a tense vote with thousands of police standing guard outside.

Rebels from the majority socialist PASOK party and rightwing New Democracy who voted against the law were immediately expelled from their respective parties.

Deputies "will assume their responsibility" and make the most important choice of "advancing with Europe and the single currency," Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said shortly before the vote took place.

On Syntagma Square, which adjoins parliament and has become a hub of popular anger, emergency workers braved a barrage of rocks and tear gas to evacuate the wounded.

Protester die-hards brandished homemade flame throwers, in addition to the usual petrol bombs, an AFP reporter noted.

As nearby storefronts burned, fire engines were initially unable to intervene because of the size of the protest and the chaos that filled the streets around Parliament.

When the masked protesters tried to break through the riot police cordon around parliament, the stand-off broke out into running battles.

The civil protection ministry counted 40 fires in Athens with several buildings set ablaze, most of them by petrol bombs.

The health ministry said 54 people were injured in the day's events.

Papademos denounced the violence in the debate leading up to the vote, saying the scuffles around the parliament building had no place in a democracy.

An estimated 80,000 protesters gathered in Athens, police said, matching the biggest turnouts achieved against earlier austerity packages last year, while around 20,000 also demonstrated in the second city of Thessaloniki.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told parliament it had to back the government-approved plan to unlock a 130 billion euro (US$171 billion) rescue fund from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, or Greece would be forced to default.

"The situation is very clear. Tonight at midnight before the markets open the Greek parliament must send the message that our nation can and will (support the debt deal)," Venizelos said.

Tokyo shares opened slightly higher on Monday following parliament's approval of the measures.

The vote, while a key hurdle, will not in itself release the much-needed funds and eurozone finance ministers who say their patience has been sorely tested by Athens are set to meet Wednesday in Brussels to discuss the next step. -- afp

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