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Protesters bash Britain's austerity drive

LONDON -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the British capital Saturday in a noisy but peaceful protest at a government austerity drive aimed at slashing the nation's debt.

Unions, anti-war campaigners, left-wing leaders, community groups and other activists poured down London's streets in a demonstration against reductions to public sector spending. Officials are pushing through the reductions in order to rein in Britain's debt, which stands at more than $1.7 trillion.

Although the austerity program has had some modest successes -- the country's deficit has dropped slightly -- the British economy has shrunk for three consecutive quarters amid cuts at home and economic turmoil on the continent.

Brendan Barber, whose Trades Union Congress helped organize the march, said the message of yesterday's protest was that "austerity is simply failing." "The government is making life desperately hard for millions of people because of pay cuts for workers, while the rich are given tax cuts," he said.

Britain borrowed nearly $21 billion in September alone, and with other European countries -- including next-door neighbor Ireland -- struggling to make good on their debt, there is a consensus that the British budget needs to be rebalanced.

But the right-leaning government did little to endear itself to ordinary Britons when it reduced income taxes for the country's wealthiest citizens earlier this year. And its leadership has struggled to fight perceptions of elitism that rankle many in this class-conscious country.

Official crowd estimates were not immediately available, although journalists at the scene said the protesters were tens of thousands strong.

Similar protests were held in Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital, and Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city.

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