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Thousands protest against austerity in Italy, Portugal

Tens of thousands of people protested against austerity in Italy and Portugal on Saturday, with clashes between riot police and dozens of activists outside the finance ministry in Rome.

“We are laying siege to the city!” a group of students chanted as they marched through Rome, while others waved rainbow peace flags and held up banners from a variety of leftist movements.

“We are protesting a one-way austerity that is bringing the country to its knees,” said Piero Bernocchi from Italy’s Cobas trade union group.

“And it hasn’t achieved what it was meant to by bringing down debt,” he said, adding: “Meanwhile politicians continue with their privileges.”

Italy is struggling to shake off a two-year recession that has pushed unemployment to record levels, shut down thousands of businesses and forced many young Italians to leave the country.

Several people were seen being detained during the protest in Rome after around 100 militants threw rocks at police guarding the finance ministry, who charged and chased them into side streets.

The window of a branch of UniCredit bank, Italy’s biggest lender, was also smashed in by protesters and the hacker group Anonymous took down several institutional websites to coincide with the rally.

Organisers said 70,000 people were taking part, while police put the number at around 50,000.

Police had seized potential weapons including chains, helmets, clubs and cobblestones and detained 14 people ahead of the protest.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 police officers have been deployed for security, local media reports said.

Meanwhile in Lisbon thousands of protesters boarded around 400 buses rented especially to get around an interior ministry ban on marching on foot across the city’s famous April 25 bridge.

“Government out!” and “Liars, liars, we want new elections!” they shouted, voicing exasperation over an austerity programme in place in Portugal for over two years as part of its bailout deal.

In Porto, the capital of the northern part of the country, organisers said “between 50,000 and 60,000 people” were taking part in a protest there, but police put the number at 25,000.

“This is a great day of struggle,” said Armenio Carlos, secretary general of the CGTP, a trade union confederation close to the Communist party.

This was the first major street mobilisation seen in Portugal since the government unveiled its budget plans on Tuesday, which will hit public servants and pensioners in their pocketbooks.

One of the most contested measures is a plan to cut civil service salaries by between 2.5 percent and 12.0 percent, as well as reducing pensions for former civil servants by 10 percent.

The cuts would not apply for salaries or pension payments below 600 euros ($820) gross a month.

The demonstration in Rome brought together various groups including migrant rights advocates, campaigners for affordable housing and protesters against a new high-speed rail link in the Alps.

Some of the protesters had camped out overnight on Piazza San Giovanni square following a trade union demonstration and transport strike on Friday.

They were planning another unsanctioned protest camp on Saturday night close to the infrastructure and transport ministry which they blame for failing to build affordable housing and wasting money on large-scale construction projects.

Many shops in that area of the Italian capital have remained shuttered for the protest in a bid to minimise potential damage to property.