ATHENS -- Three people were killed in a fire set by protesters on Wednesday during a march against government austerity measures in central Athens, officials said.
"We have found three dead people in the building that is on fire," the fire brigade said.
Protesters clashing with police set the commercial building on fire as tens of thousands of Greeks marched to parliament, testing the government's resolve in enacting deep budget cuts in return for billions of euros in EU/IMF aid.
In the worst violence since the Socialist government came to power in October, hundreds of striking demonstrators pelted police with rocks, chunks of marble and bottles, set garbage cans on fire and tried repeatedly to storm parliament, shortly before lawmakers began a debate on the belt-tightening measures.
Police in full riot gear hurled repeated rounds of tear gas and flash bombs to repel the protesters, and smoke wafted through blocks of central Athens.
Masked youths threw petrol bombs, broke shop windows, and shouted "Murderers" and "Burn the parliament," in a sign of swelling public anger at the government's plans for painful wage and pension cutbacks.
A giant plume of dark grey smoke rose over the central Stadiou Avenue where the two-storey commercial building, which houses a branch of the Marfin bank, was burning. Officials said two other buildings in the center of the capital had been set on fire during the protest.
Police estimated the march at about 27,000 people. But witnesses said there were at least 40,000 — easily the biggest protest since the debt crisis hit Greece late last year.
Public and private sector workers are staging their third joint strike this year. They have grounded flights, shut shops and brought public transport to a standstill.
"These measures are horrible," said Maria Tzivara, a 54-year-old saleswoman. "I'm afraid I'll get fired or my salary will be cut. It will be very tough."
Prime Minister George Papandreou submitted an austerity bill to parliament on Tuesday that envisions 30 billion euros ($40 billion) in new savings through deep cuts in wages and pensions and a rise in value-added tax.
The conservative opposition has vowed to vote against the bill, dooming hopes of a national political consensus on the measures. The government enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament and expects to pass the legislation this week.
Until now, anti-austerity protests had been fairly peaceful but the violence on Wednesday echoed that seen in riots that shook the country in December 2008 after a teenager was killed by police.
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