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3 dead in Greece riot over cutbacks

ATHENS - Rioting over harsh austerity measures left three people dead in a torched Athens bank and clouds of tear gas drifting past parliament Wednesday in an outburst of anger that underlined the difficult struggle Greece faces with painful cutbacks that come with an international bailout.

The deaths were the first during a protest in Greece in nearly 20 years.

Fear that the bailout won't stop the debt crisis from spreading to other financially troubled European Union countries like Portugal and Spain intensified amid the violence, as credit ratings agency Moody's put Portugal on watch for a possible downgrade.

The euro sank, dipping below $1.29 for the first time in more than a year.

Greece faces a May 19 due date on debt it says it can't repay without the help. The new government cutbacks, which slash salaries and pensions for civil servants and hike consumer taxes, are being imposed as conditions of getting $142.16 billion in rescue loans from the International Monetary Fund and the other 15 EU countries of the eurozone.

Many Greeks realize some cutbacks are necessary to pull their country, which has a massive debt of $387.72 billion, back from the brink of default, and reaction until now had been relatively muted by Greece's volatile standards. But with people beginning to feel the pain of austerity measures, anger boiled over.

Violent demonstrations are commonplace in Greece, but they usually take the form of set-piece clashes between anarchist youths and police and rarely lead to serious injuries. The deaths shocked public opinion.

Some 100,000 people took to the streets in a nationwide general strike that grounded flights, shut all services and pulled news broadcasts off the air.

Hundreds of demonstrators, including far-right-wing supporters, broke away from the marches and tried to storm parliament, shouting "thieves, traitors." At the opposite end of the political spectrum, groups of anarchists hurled firebombs and ripped-up paving stones at buildings and police, who responded with barrages of tear gas.

Three bank workers, a man and two women all aged between 32 and 36, died of smoke inhalation after demonstrators torched their bank, trapping them. As their colleagues sobbed in the street, four others were rescued from a balcony.

A senior fire department official said demonstrators prevented firefighters from reaching the burning building.

Fifteen civilians and 29 police were injured in what Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrisohoides called "a black day for democracy." Twelve people were arrested in Athens and another two in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

"I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage," President Karolos Papoulias said. "The big challenge we face is to maintain social cohesion and peace. Our country came to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don't step over the edge."

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