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Violence erupts amid massive Greece strike

ATHENS, Greece - Hundreds of rioting youths smashed and looted stores in central Athens on Wednesday during a big anti-government rally against painful new austerity measures that erupted into violence.

Outside parliament, demonstrators hurled chunks of marble and gasoline bombs at riot police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Police said at least 14 officers were hospitalized with injuries. At least three journalists covering the demonstrations sustained minor injuries.

Despite the rioting, Greek lawmakers granted initial approval to a new austerity bill whose spending cuts and tax hikes have sparked the fury.

The bill received a 154-141 vote late Wednesday. A second vote on the bill's articles will be held Thursday in the 300-member Parliament. Only after that vote will the bill have passed.

The measures include new tax hikes, further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants and the suspension of collective labour contracts.

The violence spread across the city center, as at least 100,000 people marched through the Greek capital on the first day of a two-day general strike that unions described as the largest protest in years.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports from Athens that the protesters first demonstrated outside parliament in an attempt to stop lawmakers from entering the building for a vote on new austerity measures. The union behind the protests is supported by the communist party

Police and rioters held running battles through the narrow streets of central Athens, as thick black smoke billowed from burning trash and bus-stops.

Wednesday's strike, which grounded flights, disrupted public transport and shut down shops and schools, came before the parliamentary vote late Thursday on new tax increases and spending cuts.

International creditors have demanded the reforms before they give Greece its next infusion of cash. Greece says it will run out of money in a month without the $11 billion bailout money from its partners that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund.

Most of the protesters who converged in central Athens marched peacefully, but crowds outside of parliament clashed with police who tried to disperse them with repeated rounds of tear gas. A gasoline bomb set fire to a presidential guard sentry post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament, while running clashes broke out in several side streets near the legislature and the capital's main Syntagma Square.

Nearby, groups of hooded, masked protesters tore chunks of marble off building fronts with hammers and crowbars and smashed windows and bank signs. Scuffles also broke out among rioters and demonstrators trying to prevent youths from destroying storefronts and banks along the march route.

Vendors sold swimming goggles to rioters, who used them to ward off the tear gas.

Thousands of people watched the skirmishes, some standing on kiosk roofs to get a better view. Trash was strewn around the streets, and some protesters set clumps of it on fire.

In Greece's second city of Thessaloniki, protesters smashed the facades of about 10 shops that defied the strike and remained open, as well as five banks and cash machines. Police fired tear gas and threw stun grenades.

All sectors — from dentists, hospital doctors and lawyers to shop owners, tax office workers, pharmacists, teachers and dock workers — walked off the job before a parliamentary vote Thursday on new austerity measures which include new taxes and the suspension of tens of thousands of civil servants.

Flights were grounded in the morning but some resumed at noon after air traffic controllers scaled back their strike plan from 48 hours to 12. Dozens of domestic and international flights were still canceled. Ferries remained tied up in port, while public transport workers staged work stoppages but kept buses, trolleys and the Athens subway system running to help protesters.

In Parliament, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told lawmakers that Greeks had no choice but to accept the hardship.

"We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis," he said. "It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense."

About 3,000 police deployed in central Athens, shutting down two subway stations near parliament as protest marches began. Protesters banged drums and chanted slogans against the government and Greece's international creditors who have pressured the country to push through rounds of tax hikes and spending cuts.

"We just can't take it any more. There is desperation, anger and bitterness," said Nikos Anastasopoulos, head of a workers' union for an Athens municipality.

Other municipal workers said they had no option but to take to the streets.

"We can't make ends meet for our families," said protester Eleni Voulieri. "We've lost our salaries, we've lost everything and we're in danger of losing our jobs."

Demonstrations during a similar 48-hour strike in June left the center of Athens convulsed by violence as rioters clashed with police on both days while deputies voted on another austerity package inside Parliament.

Piles of garbage festered on Athens street corners despite Tuesday's government order to garbage crews to end their 17-day strike. Earlier in the week, private crews removed some trash from along the planned demonstration routes, but mounds remained on side streets, along some of the march routes and in city neighborhoods.