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Greeks, Italians riot over austerity measures

ATHENS, Greece - Masked youths clashed with riot police outside Greece's parliament and the U.S. embassy Thursday as thousands of austerity-weary Greeks marched through Athens in an annual commemoration of a bloody student uprising in the 1970s.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the rioters, and some 78 people were detained for questioning. Eleven people were arrested. Police also reported four injured police officers. A young protester was reportedly hospitalized after injuring both legs in an attempt to evade police.

Some 28,000 people took part in the march, according to police estimates, making it one of the biggest Nov. 17 protests in years. Seven thousand officers were monitoring the crowd.

Meanwhile, in Italy, against the backdrop of anti-austerity protesters clashing with riot police, that country's new premier appealed to Italians on Thursday to accept sacrifices to save their country from bankruptcy, but pledged economic growth and greater social cohesion in return.

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Italian premier Mario Monti at the first cabinet meeting of the new government at Chigi palace premier office, in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. AP Photo

Mario Monti is under enormous pressure to boost growth and bring down Italy's high debt, not only to save Italy from succumbing to the debt crisis but to prevent a catastrophic disintegration of the common euro currency.

"Europe is experiencing the most difficult days since the end of the Second World War," Monti told parliament in his debut address. "Let's not fool ourselves, honored senators, that the European project can survive if the monetary union fails."

Monti pledged to reform the pension system, re-impose a tax on first homes annulled by Silvio Berlusconi's government, fight tax evasion, cut the costs of politics, streamline civil court proceedings and get more women and youth into the work force.

"This government recognizes that it was born to confront a serious emergency in a constructive and united spirit," Monti said, calling it "a government of national commitment."

With loan-dependent Greece heading for its fourth year of recession and saddled with record unemployment, Thursday's demonstrations was the first test of public sentiment for the new coalition government of Lucas Papademos, a technocrat enjoying widespread popularity, according to polls.

Thursday's annual protest commemorates the squashing of a pro-democracy student uprising in 1973 by the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967-74 -- and whose backing from the U.S. still rankles in the country. But the embassy march has traditionally served as a vent for anti-government protests that often turn violent.

About 15,000 people took part in a similar protest in the northern city of Thessaloniki that turned violent when a couple of hundred anarchists threw projectiles and petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas. No injuries have been reported.

The clashes come a day after Papademos, a 64-year-old former central banker, easily won a confidence vote in parliament.

Papademos heads a coalition of the majority Socialists, conservative New Democracy and the small right-wing populist LAOS party, which has nationalist and anti-immigration roots.

He faces a daunting task in the 100 days until early elections in February. As well as staving off looming bankruptcy by securing the country's next rescue loan installment, his government must pass a new austerity budget -- to be tabled in parliament Friday -- and transform paper pledges of sweeping public sector reform into action.

The Greek government's most pressing task is to secure the release of an euro8 billion ($11 billion) loan installment -- frozen by the EU as it awaits written commitments from all parties in the new coalition that they will honor the terms of the new debt agreement after the next election.

Greek conservatives have balked at the demand, despite warnings the country will default before Christmas without the money, leaving Papademos to seek a compromise with the European Union.

He will meet with top EU officials in Brussels on Monday, a day before flying to Luxembourg to meet Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs meetings of eurozone finance ministers.

Italy Milan riots
Students clash with police during a demonstration in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. AP Photo

Italian premier Monti, a 68-year-old economist and university president, described three pillars of his strategy to tackle the debt: Budgetary rigor, economic growth and social fairness.

He was interrupted 17 times by applause during his speech outlining his goals. But outside, Rome's historic center was paralyzed by student protests and in the financial capital of Milan, riot police struggled to stop protesters trying to reach the Bocconi University over which he presides, signaling the depth of the resistance the new leader will have to confront.

Monti's one-day-old government won vote of confidence 281-25 in the Senate later Thursday, ahead of a vote in the lower house Friday, on his government of experts, including fellow professors, bankers and business executives. He was chosen to lead after Italy's spiraling financial crisis brought down media mogul Berlusconi's 3 1/2 year-old government.

Europe has already bailed out three small countries -- Greece, Ireland and Portugal -- but the Italian economy, the third-largest in the 17-nation eurozone, is too big for Europe to rescue. Borrowing costs on 10-year Italian bonds spiked briefly over 7 percent Thursday -- a level that forced those other countries into bailouts -- before closing at 6.81 percent.

In a conference call Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Monti agreed that their countries have a special responsibility to the eurozone as its three largest economies and founding members of the European Union.

Still, it's not clear how many sacrifices already-stressed Italians are willing or able to make.

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