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Greek MPs debate austerity measures as police battle anarchists in Athens

The National Associated Press


ATHENS // Anarchists and police fought running battles in central Athens yesterday as Greek politicians debated legislation to introduce severe austerity measures and stave off bankruptcy.

The clashes broke out in the early evening as tens of thousands of people, responding to calls from unions to protest against the measures, streamed into Syntagma Square facing Parliament.

Peaceful protesters fled to adjacent streets as anarchists threw bottles, rocks, pieces of marble and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Among those affected by the tear gas were the well-known composer Mikis Theodorakis, 86, and the veteran leftist politician Manolis Glezos, 89.

The two have been actively campaigning against Greece accepting a €130 billion (Dh629.7bn) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that would help Greece to avoid bankruptcy, which could occur as early as next month when a €14.5bn bond matures.

The legislation will also approve a bond-swap deal with private creditors allowing Greece to shave off at least €100bn of its €360bn debt.

An ambulance picked up two injured people from the square. At least two more injuries have been reported, including a photographer who was hit by a firebomb and flare.

The debate started a few hours before the protests began and was expected to go long into the night. At the start of the meeting, opponents of the legislation made frequent, loud interruptions, but they calmed down by mid-evening.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the square outside Parliament as the debate began, with more arriving constantly.

At the same time, communist-affiliated unions held a separate meeting and started marching to Parliament before halting as the clashes broke out.

Police feared more violence would break out if the communists and anarchists met, and tried to keep them apart. Authorities have deployed 6,000 policemen in the city centre.

Pro-communist unionists had earlier driven through the neighbourhoods of Athens, calling for people to join the demonstration. Protesters were expected to remain outside the building throughout the vote.

The two parties backing the coalition government have 236 deputies in the 300-member Parliament, but at least 13 conservative and seven Socialist politicians have declared they will vote against the legislation, defying their leaders' threats of sanctions.

Early yesterday, a conservative politician resigned after three Socialists did the same this week.

Greece does not have the money to cover the €14.5bn bond repayment due on March 20, and must reach a debt-relief deal with private bond investors before then.

Greece's woes have threatened its future in the 17-country zone that uses the euro currency. The Europeans are waiting to see if Greece finally acts on its commitments.

The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, was quoted as telling the Welt am Sonntag newspaper yesterday that Greece "cannot be a bottomless pit".

"That's why the Greeks must finally put a bottom in," Mr Schaeuble said. "Then we can put something in too."

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