Greeks clean up after riots against austerity vote

By Elena Becatoros

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 6:34 a.m. MST

A firefighter extinguishes a smouldering building in central Athens on Monday Feb. 13, 2012. Firefighters are dousing smoldering buildings and cleanup crews are sweeping rubble following a night of rioting in central Athens after lawmakers approved harsh new austerity measures demanded by bailout creditors to save the debt-crippled nation from bankruptcy. The rioting began ahead of a historic vote in Parliament on yet more austerity measures. Lawmakers approved the bill in a 199-74 vote, with strong dissent among the two main coalition partners.

Dimitri Messinis, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — Firefighters doused smoldering buildings and cleanup crews swept rubble from the streets of central Athens on Monday following a night of rioting during which lawmakers approved harsh new austerity measures demanded by bailout creditors to save the nation from bankruptcy.

At least 45 buildings were burned, including one of the capital's oldest cinemas, while dozens of stores and cafes were smashed and looted.

The stench of tear gas still hung in the air on Monday morning, choking passers-by. More than 170 people were hurt in the rioting which also broke out in other Greek cities. Authorities said 106 police needed medical care after being injured by gasoline bombs, rocks and other objects hurled at them, while at least 70 protesters were also hospitalized.

Police arrested at least 74 people and detained a further 92, while in several cases they had to escort fire crews to burning buildings after protesters prevented access.

The rioting began Sunday afternoon ahead of a landmark vote in Parliament on yet more austerity measures. The drastic cuts debated in parliament include axing one in five civil service jobs over the next three years and slashing the minimum wage by more than a fifth.

Lawmakers approved the bill in a 199-74 vote — to the relief of investors who pushed the Athens stock index up 5 percent on Monday.

The vote paves the way for Greece's international creditors to release €130 billion ($172 billion) in new rescue loans to prevent the country from a potentially catastrophic default next month — bankruptcy could push Greece out of Europe's euro currency union, drag down other troubled eurozone countries and further roil global markets.

The new bailout deal, which has not yet been finalized, will be combined with a massive bond swap deal to write off half the country's privately held debt, reducing Greece's debt load by about €100 billion.

However, it could take time before the country actually receives any of the cash. For both deals to materialize, Greece has to persuade its deeply skeptical creditors that it has the will to implement spending cuts and public sector reforms that will end years of fiscal profligacy and tame gaping budget deficits.

Eurozone finance ministers are to meet on Wednesday to discuss the issue, after refusing to approve the plan during a meeting last week, saying Athens had to first approve the new austerity measures.

German Finance Ministry spokeswoman Marianne Kothe said Monday that the ministers will not make a final decision on the second aid package for Greece on Wednesday. She said the bond swap agreement must be finalized first, and the ministers will focus on all steps and measures "necessary for the second Greek package."

Before signing off on the bailout, the eurozone ministers also want Greek political leaders to commit in writing to uphold the austerity plan even after the general election in April. Government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis said the written guarantees are needed by Wednesday.

In the vote on the new bill, there was nevertheless strong dissent over the austerity package among the majority Socialists and rival Conservatives who make up Greece's interim coalition government. The parties disciplined the dissenters in their ranks, with the Socialists and Conservatives expelling 22 and 21 lawmakers respectively, reducing their majority in the 300-member parliament from 236 to 193.

Germany gave the vote result a cautious welcome, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle describing it as "a first significant step along the right road."

"However, the actual difficult work with implementing the reforms that have been agreed on is only just starting now," he said in a statement. "That is the decisive precondition for Germany and the other euro partners being able to stand by Greece with a further rescue package."

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