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Greek protestors clash with police while MPs debate austerity measures

Parliamentary approval is one of three conditions the crisis-hit country must meet by Wednesday for fresh rescue funds to be released by 20 March when Greece must cover €14.5bn (£12.1bn) in bond repayments

Anti-government demonstrators turned the square in front of the Greek parliament building in Athens into a a war zone on Sunday night as politicians debated the controversial austerity plan aimed at averting a sovereign default.

The ballot – widely seen as the most important in modern Greek history – ignited fury as violence erupted outside the parliament where protesters had assembled, while inside, MPs engaged in fierce debate over the draconian measures demanded in return for international aid.

Protesters wearing black masks fought running battles with police while others held banners saying “Popular uprising!”, “It’s us or them!” and “Don’t gamble away all we have achieved”.

More than 5,000 police officers were dispatched to the capital with units being brought in from the countryside in anticipation of clashes that broke out within an hour of demonstrators gathering.

Before the vote, MPs citing the counter-productive affects of austerity so far appeared uncertain which way they would cast their ballots despite mounting consensus that the agreement would ultimately be passed.

Parliamentary approval is one of three conditions the crisis-hit country must meet by Wednesday for fresh rescue funds to be released by 20 March when Greece must cover €14.5bn (£12.1bn) in bond repayments.

Once the debate began there were angry exchanges inside the chamber.

One communist deputy threw the bill under discussion to the floor but finance minister Evangelos Venizelos told parliament that Greece had no easy way out. The alternative to the international bailout – bankruptcy and a departure from the eurozone – would be far worse for Greeks, he said.

“The choice is not between sacrifice and no sacrifices at all, but between sacrifices and unimaginably harsher ones,” he told MPs.

Highlighting the dangers of rejecting the €130bn rescue programme, the prime minister, Lucas Papademos, laid bare the perils of bankruptcy in a televised address, saying the nation was a “breath away from ground zero.”

With the stakes so high, reform-minded Greeks welcomed Papademos’s dramatic intervention as long overdue.

“At last the prime minister has spoken directly to the people and told the truth,” said the former finance minister Stefanos Manos. “I hope the unthinking adherents of the [return of the] drachma and bankruptcy will listen to him.”

But amid mounting opposition to the measures, the Communist party (KKE) lambasted the speech as “scaremongering”.

Foreign lenders have demanded that in addition to the €3.3bn cuts outlined in the package Greece also provides evidence of €325m in extra savings by next week. The leaders of the two main parties backing Papademos’s interim coalition government have also been asked to give written guarantees of their commitment. The government’s junior party, the populist far-right Loas, broke ranks, refusing to support the belt-tightening on Friday.

The German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned: “With a new austerity program they are going to first have to implement parts of the old programme … It’s important to say that it cannot be a bottomless pit. Greeks have to close that pit. Then we can put something in there.”

But MPs’ opposition to the measures – illustrated by the resignation of six cabinet ministers and avowed refusal of politicians from the left and right yesterday to toe their parties’ line by endorsing the deal — was further proof of how difficult implementation would be.

Forthcoming elections are expected to change Greece’s political landscape dramatically, with many of the MPs voting yesterday unlikely to be re-elected to the 300-seat parliament. With the rise of leftwing parties that have vehemently opposed the budget cuts, commentators said it was very unlikely the reforms would be enforced despite the pivotal ballot.

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