ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Rioting spread across central Athens and buildings went up in flames amid mass protests, as lawmakers prepared to vote for a crucial debt deal needed to prevent bankruptcy.
Clashes erupted across the city center after more than 100,000 protesters marched to parliament to rally against drastic austerity cuts that will force firing in the civil service and slash the minimum wage.
Thick clouds of smoke and tear gas filled the air around parliament, as hundreds of rioters staged running battles with riot police and at least five buildings were in flames late Sunday.
Protesters and police fought running battles in central Athens Sunday, as Greek lawmakers debated legislation that would introduce severe austerity measures to stave off bankruptcy.
The clashes broke out around 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) as tens of thousands of people, responding to calls from unions to protest the measures, streamed into Syntagma Square facing Parliament.
Peaceful protesters fled to adjacent streets as a group of around 100 anarchists threw bottles, rocks, pieces of marble and firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
Police say an officer was injured by a flare shot at him from a gun. He was taken to hospital.
Among those affected by the tear gas were well-known composer Mikis Theodorakis, 86, and veteran leftist politician Manolis Glezos, 89. The two have been actively campaigning against Greece accepting a €130 billion ($171.46 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that would help Greece avoid bankruptcy as early as next month, when a €14.5 billion bond matures.
The legislation will also approve a bond-swapping deal with private creditors that will allow Greece to shave off at least €100 billion ($131 billion) of its €360 billion 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 both a firebomb and a flare.
By 7 p.m. local time, clashes had spread beyond the square to other streets. A Starbucks near the Athens University main building was on fire.
The debate started shortly after 3:30 p.m. local time (1330 GMT), and will take about ten hours, finishing around midnight. At the start of the meeting, opponents of the legislation adopted a tactic of frequent and loud interruptions and objections but had calmed down by mid-evening.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the square outside Parliament as the debate began, with more arriving constantly.
Communist-affiliated unions held a separate meeting at the same time and started marching to Parliament before halting their march as the clashes broke out.
Police fear if the communists and anarchists meet, further violence would erupt and are trying to keep the two apart. Authorities have deployed some 6,000 policemen in the city center.
Pro-Communist unionists had earlier driven through Athens' neighborhoods, calling for people to participate in the demonstration. Protesters are 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 lawmakers have declared they will vote against the legislation, defying their leaders' threats of sanctions. Early Sunday, a conservative lawmaker resigned, repeating the actions of three Socialists earlier this week.
Debt-stricken Greece does not have the money to cover a €14.5 billion ($19.12 billion) bond repayment on March 20, and must reach a vital 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 Greece finally act on their commitments.