Buildings set ablaze in Greece before debt vote

DEMETRIS NELLAS NICHOLAS PAPHITIS Associated Press Published:

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Rioting spread across central Athens and at least seven buildings went up in flames amid mass protests late Sunday, as lawmakers debated harsh cutbacks demanded to keep the country solvent and within the eurozone.

TV footage showed a three-story corner building completely engulfed in flames with riots officers on the street and firefighters trying to douse the blaze. The buildings set ablaze included a bank, a mobile phone dealership, a glassware store and a cafeteria, the fire department said. It was not immediately clear whether there was anyone inside the burning buildings.

Clashes erupted across the city center after more than 100,000 protesters marched to parliament to rally against drastic austerity cuts that will force firings in the civil service and slash the minimum wage.

Riot police fired dozens of tear gas volleys to clear the streets around parliament of rioting youths, who attacked them with firebombs, fireworks and chunks of marble smashed off the fronts of luxury hotels, banks and department stores.

Authorities said several protesters and police were injured, while an unspecified number of suspected rioters were detained.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos' government -- an unlikely coalition of the majority Socialists and their main foes, the conservative New Democracy -- was expected to carry the vote, even by a narrow margin.

Combined, they control 236 of Parliament's 300 seats, although at least 20 lawmakers from both main parties said they would not back the new private sector wage cuts, pension reductions and civil service layoffs dictated by the draft austerity program.

"There are very few such moments in the history of a nation," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said. "Our country has an acute issue of survival."

"The question is not whether some salaries and pensions will be curtailed, but whether we will be able to pay even these reduced wages and pensions," he added. "When you have to choose between bad and worse, you will pick what is bad to avoid what is worse."

The new cutbacks, which follow two years of harsh income losses and tax hikes -- amid a deep recession and record high unemployment -- have been demanded by Greece's bailout creditors in return for a new batch of vital rescue loans.