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Europe-wide protests over budget cuts

Greek unions on Wednesday staged walkouts as part of Europe-wide anti-austerity demonstrations, hours after parliament approved fresh budget cuts linked to a new eurozone bailout.

In Spain, police beat and arrested youths, rioters smashed windows and fires were lit in the streets of Barcelona as a student demonstration against economic cuts boiled over. Marches were also held in Portugal and Belgium.

The protests and stoppages were part of a day of action by European labour organisations against austerity measures enacted in Greece and other struggling eurozone economies to address a debt crisis plaguing the single currency area.

In Athens, the main labour groups, private-sector GSEE and public-sector ADEDY, began a nationwide three-hour work stoppage from midday (1000 GMT) ahead of a demonstration in the centre of the capital in the evening.

Only around 1,000 demonstrators gathered in the rain outside the parliament building for an anti-austerity concert, according to police.

Symbolic protests were also held outside the offices of the European Commission and the Acropolis.

“There aren’t enough people unfortunately, not only because of the bad weather but because people are terrorised by the propaganda on the TV, which keeps telling us there’s no alternative to austerity,” said protester Yanna Sarabali, 53.

Alongside her, protesters chanted: “Resistance and struggle is the only way!”

Inside parliament, which was surrounded by police, MPs were debating emergency legislation on restructuring the health sector demanded by the country’s European Union and International Monetary Fund creditors.

Greek municipal workers occupied town halls around the country for the duration of the three-hour walkout, their union said.

Separately, doctors were holding a one-day strike against health spending cuts.

The EU and the IMF have demanded additional budget cuts to address deficit slippage before releasing a new bailout of 130 billion euros ($175 billion).

The latest rescue, after a 110-billion-euro EU-IMF loan in 2010, is tied to a massive debt writedown with private creditors designed to reduce Greece’s 350-billion-euro debt by 107 billion euros.

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos rejected Wednesday a call for a special EU commissioner to be appointed to run his country’s promised reforms in exchange for bailout aid.

Papademos will attend a Eurogroup meeting of finance ministers on Thursday to discuss the Greek measures.

In Barcelona, hooded rioters hurled paving slabs through the glass door of a bank and police charged other protesters, beating them with batons, handcuffing some and hauling them off, an AFP photographer saw.

Thousands of students were marching in various Spanish cities in anger over crisis spending cuts that are hitting schools and universities and at recent police violence against protesters in Valencia.

Demonstrators swamped the streets in the eastern city of Valencia, the region worst hit by the education funding crisis, and in Madrid, hundreds marched to the Puerta del Sol square in a rally that concluded peacefully.

An AFP reporter at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a mobile telecom industry gathering, said police put up barriers to protect the venue from any disturbances.

The national students’ union said marches were called in about 40 cities and towns across the country to protest the austerity measures they say are disrupting classes and cutting teaching jobs.

In Madrid, students whistled and chanted slogans such as “Fewer cuts, more education!”

They rallied noisily outside the national education ministry and stopped on their march to whistle angrily outside offices of Santander, a major bank.

They were the latest in a string of demonstrations in various sectors in anger at cuts and reforms that the conservative government says will strengthen the economy and eventually curb unemployment, which is near 23 percent.

In the Portuguese capital Lisbon, nearly 500 people marched behind banners calling for a general strike on March 22 to protest against austerity measures and labour reforms.

Protesters heading to the official residence of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho shouted, “Unemployment in Portugal is a national disgrace”.

And in Brussels, European trade union leaders brought their anti-austerity drive to EU headquarters with the message “Enough is Enough” on the eve of a summit to tighten European Union budget discipline.

Waving posters saying “No To Austerity” and “Rise Up Against Austerity”, some 200 leaders from unions across Europe gathered outside the venue where the bloc’s 27 leaders gather Thursday and Friday to sign a treaty to strengthen economic governance and budgetary discipline.

The unions fear austerity measures to overcome Europe’s debt crisis will plunge the continent into longer recession, threatening its social model and leading to cuts in wages and public services as well as new rules on labour flexibility.