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Greek Cabinet ministers quit; protesters clash with police

By Christine Pirovolakis and Alvise Armellini –

ATHENS, Greece — The Greek government was rocked by a series of defections Friday as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Athens in protest of austerity measures being imposed by international lenders, casting doubts over the country’s future in the eurozone.

Hours after hundreds of angry rioters broke away from a peaceful demonstration involving more than 11,000 people, five Greek Cabinet members, including the transport minister and the deputy foreign minister, handed in their resignations.

A total of six members of the 48-strong Cabinet have now quit in the past two days. In addition, George Karatzaferis, leader of the right-wing LAOS party that is backing the three-party ruling coalition, said he would withhold his support for the new measures.

The wave of resignations came a day after eurozone finance ministers refused to agree to a second bailout for Greece, saying the country had not yet met all of their demands.

They have given Athens until next week to provide guarantees on the austerity measures and on the economic reforms that Greek leaders had promised in return for funding.

Determined to avoid a chaotic default, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said he was determined to push through an austerity deal, in spite of the political turmoil rocking the country.

Addressing a Cabinet meeting, Papademos told ministers that if any of them were to vote against the new measures in a parliamentary ballot, they would have to leave the ruling coalition.

“A disorderly default would trigger economic chaos and social explosion,” he said in a televised opening address to the Cabinet.

If the Greek government continues to fail to satisfy the austerity demands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, it will not receive a $172 billion aid package, risking a chaotic default when it faces a bond repayment in March.

Parliament is due to vote on the proposed austerity measures on Sunday or Monday. The proposals include private sector wage cuts, a 22 percent reduction on the minimum wage, public sector layoffs and spending cuts to health, social security and defense budgets.

Faced with rising dissent, Papademos was reported to be considering a Cabinet reshuffle following the Parliament vote, replacing his ministers with technocrats, as Italy has done.

Meanwhile, the anger on the streets of the Greek capital grew to alarming levels.

Workers went on strike and riot police clashed with hundreds of black hooded rioters, with the demonstrations expected to continue until Sunday.

The demonstrations in Athens coincided with a 48-hour nationwide strike by Greek public and private sector workers. The walkout paralyzed public transport and forced ferries to remain moored at ports around the country.

Government offices, banks, schools, courtrooms, museums and archaeological sites remained closed while hospitals operated with emergency staff.

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