ATHENS, Greece — Greek police fired water cannons and fought running battles with protesters hurling Molotov cocktails outside parliament on Wednesday during the biggest rally in over a year against spending cuts the country must approve to avert bankruptcy.
The demonstrations came hours before the parliament narrowly passed a crucial austerity bill early Thursday, in a vote that left the coalition government reeling from dissent as it struggles to secure vital bailout funds.
The bill, which will further slash pensions and salaries, passed 153-128 in the 300-member parliament.
Nearly 100,000 Greeks waving flags and chanting "Fight! They're drinking our blood" packed the square outside parliament as lawmakers neared the vote on the unpopular budget cuts and labor reforms.
Violence erupted when a handful of protesters tried to break through a barricade to enter parliament, prompting riot police to respond with teargas, stun grenades and — for the first time in an anti-austerity protest — water cannons.
More chaos reigned inside the assembly, where the session was briefly interrupted when parliamentary workers went on strike to protest against a clause that would have cut their salaries. In a humiliating about-face, the government was forced to cancel the measure to allow the session to resume.
"Today we vote on whether we will remain in the eurozone or return to international isolation, meet complete bankruptcy and end up in the drachma," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a final plea to lawmakers to back the cuts and unlock aid.
Outside, loud booms rang out through the evening as hooded protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police. Billowing smoke and small fires dotted the square and streets next to parliament.
At least 35 people were detained. There were no reports of serious injuries but at least four protesters suffered breathing problems, police said, as protesters dispersed in pouring rain. The anti-austerity rally appeared to be the largest in Athens since summer last year.
"These measures are killing us little by little and lawmakers in there don't give a damn," said Maria Aliferopoulou, a 52-year-old mother of two living on 1,000 euros a month. "They are rich, they have everything and we have nothing and are fighting for crumbs, for survival."
The vote came on the second day of a two-day national strike called by the country's two biggest unions, which halted public transport and shut schools, banks and government offices. Garbage piled up on streets.
Backed by the leftist opposition, unions say the measures will hit the poor and spare the wealthy, while deepening a five-year recession that has wiped out a fifth of the country's output and driven unemployment to a record 25 percent.
"You live in constant fear and uncertainty. You never know what's waiting for you around the corner," said Panos Goutsis, 58, who works in a small corner shop in Athens. "How many times will they tell us these are the last measures? We're sick of hearing it."
Anger has also been growing at the relaxed approach consecutive governments have taken towards catching tax cheats, with many saying officials have dragged their feet on investigations in order to protect a wealthy elite.
Following the publication last month of a list of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, the Swiss government said on Wednesday it was hoping to clinch a swift deal with Athens on taxing secret holdings.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.