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Riots in Athens as Greece debates austerity bill

Police in Athens have fired tear gas at protesters as parliamentarians debate a controversial austerity bill. Protesters have set at least ten buildings alight as the Greek premier warned violence would not be tolerated.

Chaotic scenes marred a crucial Greek parliamentary debate on Sunday as lawmakers looked set to endorse a deeply unpopular austerity bill.

Clashes erupted as more than 100,000 protesters marched to parliament to rally against measures which are aimed at securing a 130-billion-euro ($171 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Around 20,000 protesters also gathered in the country's second city, Thessaloniki.

At least ten buildings in the Greek capital were in flames after hundreds of black-hooded anarchists set fire to shops, banks and an apartment block. Some launched fire bombs and bottles at police who responded with stun grenades and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

Inside parliament, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos told lawmakers violence was completely unacceptable.

"Vandalisms, violence and destruction have no place in a democratic country and won't be tolerated," he said.

Meanwhile, tear gas was reported to have filtered into the chamber and lawmakers endured loud bangs from the scenes outside as they edged closer to a vote.

Dire warning

Replicating hostility on the streets, several lawmakers expressed fierce opposition in parliament. Amid fiery exchanges and loud interruptions one Communist Party deputy hurled the pages of the deeply unpopular bill on the floor of the chamber.

Addressing parliament, however, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos warned that "if the law is not passed, the country will go bankrupt."

The 300-seat parliament had to come to a decision by midnight, he said, "because come Monday morning, banking and financial markets must get the message that Greece can and will survive."

Greek MP throws the booklet detailing the austerity measures

Several parliamentarians say they will vote against the bill

If passed, the bill would introduce a fresh set of strict austerity measures, including a 22 percent cut to the minimum wage, 15,000 layoffs in the public sector and cuts to pensions and the health and defense sectors.

At least 13 conservative and seven socialist lawmakers have declared they will vote against the legislation, which has been a source of turmoil within the ruling coalition. Earlier Sunday, a conservative lawmaker resigned, joining three socialists who did the same earlier this week.

Germany voices concerns

Ahead of Sunday's debate German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned that it's up to Greece whether the country can stay in the eurozone, saying Athens must dramatically change its ways.

"That is all in the hands of the Greeks themselves. But even in the event [that Greece leaves the eurozone], which almost no one assumes will happen, they will still remain part of Europe."

Speaking with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Schäuble criticized heavily indebted Greece, saying its many vows to reform must now be followed by action.

"The promises from Greece aren't enough for us anymore," said Schäuble. "With a new austerity program they are going to first have to implement parts of the old program and save."

"But it's important to say that it cannot be a bottomless pit. That's why the Greeks have to finally close that pit. And then we can put something in there. At least people are now starting to realize it won't work with a bottomless pit."

The latest austerity measures are a requirement set by the troika of international lenders - the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Without the measures, Greece will not receive a second bailout worth 130 billion euros ($170 billion) needed to avoid state bankruptcy in March.

ccp, cmk/dfm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)