ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Youths hurled rocks and fire bombs at riot police in central Athens on Tuesday as a general strike against new austerity measures brought the country to a standstill.
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Lawmakers were embarking on their second day of debate on austerity measures that must be passed in votes on Wednesday and Thursday if Greece's international creditors are to release another batch of bailout funds to see it beyond the middle of next month.
The package must be passed so the European Union and the International Monetary Fund release the next installment of Greece's euro110 billion ($156 billion) bailout loan. Without that euro12 billion ($17 billion) installment, Greece faces the prospect of a default next month - a potentially disastrous event that could drag down European banks and hurt other financially troubled European countries.
The new austerity drive is proving hugely unpopular in Greece, and the demonstration in central Athens soon degenerated into violence. For several hours, police fired volleys of tear gas and stun grenades at masked and hooded youths who pelted them with petrol bombs and chunks of smashed marble. Police said 18 people were detained, with five of them later arrested, while 21 policemen were injured.
The clashes came at the start of a two-day strike called by unions furious that the new euro28 billion ($40 billion) austerity program will slap taxes on minimum wage earners and other struggling Greeks. The measures come on top of other spending cuts and tax hikes that have sent Greek unemployment soaring to over 16 percent.
"The situation that the workers are going through is tragic and we are near poverty levels," said Spyros Linardopoulos, a protester with the PAME union blockading the port of Piraeus. "The government has declared war and to this war we will answer back with war."
Two demonstrations by a total of about 20,000 people began peacefully, but tension escalated into violence when two groups of protesters clashed.
The situation quickly degenerated, with rioters setting fire to giant parasols at an outdoor cafe, using some to form barricades, and smashing windows of a McDonald's outlet and other snack shops. Staff at upscale hotels handed out surgical masks to tourists and helped them with rolling luggage past the rioting, over ground strewn with smashed-up marble and cement paving stones.
Youths set fire to a satellite truck parked near parliament, which rolled downhill into a kiosk whose freezer exploded. Hooded youths ducked behind the burning truck to help themselves to ice-cream cones.
"The troublemakers are attacking the police fiercely" and trying to disrupt a peaceful protest, police spokesman Athanasios Kokalakis said.
The scale of the strike bought large parts of the Greek public sector to a halt. Everyone from doctors and ambulance drivers to casino workers and even actors at a state-funded theater were joining the strike or holding work stoppages for several hours.
An ongoing strike by electricity company workers kept up rolling blackouts across Greece. Not far from the violent protest, cafes and ice cream vendors popular with tourists used portable generators to keep the power on.
Hundreds of flights were canceled or rescheduled as air traffic controllers walked off the job for four hours in the morning. Another walkout is scheduled later. Strikes by public transport workers snarled traffic across the capital and left tourists stranded around Piraeus.
Many Greeks insist they should not be forced to pay for a crisis they believe politicians are responsible for.
"We don't owe any money, it's the others who stole it," said 69-year-old demonstrator Antonis Vrahas. "We're resisting for a better society for the sake of our children and grandchildren."
Even lawmakers from the governing Socialists have been upset over the latest measures and Prime Minister George Papandreou has struggled to contain an internal party revolt. He reshuffled his Cabinet earlier this month to try to ensure his party's support for this vote, but the Socialists still only have a 5-seat majority in the 300-member Parliament.
Papandreou urged lawmakers Monday to fulfill a "patriotic duty" by voting in favor of the new measures, but two of his own lawmakers have suggested they won't.
European officials have also been pressuring Greece's the main conservative opposition party to back the austerity bill, but so far their urgings have failed to convince conservative party leader Antonis Samaras.
"I trust that the Greek political leaders are fully aware of the responsibility that lies on their shoulders to avoid default," European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said.
In addition to seeking the next batch of bailout funds, Greece looks like it will need another financial rescue. Papandreou has said a second bailout would be roughly the same size as the first and hopefully on better terms.
"I call on Europe, for its part, to give Greece the time and the terms it needs to really pay off its debt, without strangling growth, and without strangling its citizens," he said.
Even with the new austerity measures and a second bailout, many investors still think Greece is heading for some sort of default because its overall euro340 billion debt burden is too great.
Derak Gatopoulos and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed.