The Greek parliament approved on Wednesday evening a fresh austerity draft bill promoted by the government as essential to avert default, as violent protests gripped the heart of Athens, turning the city into a battlefield.
A total of 154 members of the ruling PASOK party in the 300-member parliament voted for the draft bill, while 141 opposition lawmakers voted against. Five lawmakers were absent for Wednesday's vote.
A second and final vote on particularly controversial articles is due on Thursday, when the ruling party's narrow parliament majority would be further contested. At least two "rebel" PASOK party lawmakers have so far threatened to vote against the bill.
"There is no next day without the approval of the bill that paves the way to the negotiation of a viable solution to the Greek debt,"said Greek Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos.
He made the statement addressing the parliament on Wednesday noon during a debate, pointing to a critical EU summit in Brussels on Sunday over the Greek debt crisis while warning of a potential Greek bankruptcy in November with unpredictable repercussions for the eurozone.
Meanwhile, opposition parties, trade unions and tens of thousands ordinary Athens citizens protested against government austerity measures on Wednesday.
More than 100,000 protesters filled the streets around the parliament and some 200,000 others marched in demonstrations held across the cash-strapped country on Wednesday, according to local media reports and estimates of two umbrella unions ADEDY and GSEE.
"From Italy to Greece one solution - revolution," chanted disgruntled demonstrators in Athens on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before Athens was hit by extensive violent clashes between hooded rioters and police on Wednesday afternoon.
In one of the biggest anti-austerity rallies held since the beginning of the debt crisis in late 2009, Wednesday's protests against a new wave of painful salary cuts, tax increases and structural reforms were largely peaceful.
But dozens of skirmishes broke out as some 200 rioters pelted petrol bombs and rocks at the police, torched bus stops, kiosks and an outpost of the ceremonial Presidential Guards in front of the parliament building, local media reported.
Employees in a bank branch and a tourism agency were briefly trapped inside the two buildings under the attack by Molotov bombs close to the parliament. In a similar incident on May 2010, three bank employees died when a bank branch was set on fire by hooded youth during a mass rally introduced to make up for shortfalls in deficit cutting goals to counter the crisis by 2014.
The rioters also smashed windows of Athens banks, looted stores and used garbage that remained uncollected on the streets for over two weeks due to a municipal workers strike, to raise barricades.
Anti-riot police eventually dispersed the rioters by firing grounds of tear gas. According to the latest official estimates, 19 civilians and 25 policemen were injured during the clashes. 28 people were detained.
"It was a nightmare that unfortunately marred the protest. It is a pity that a group of rioters stole the impressions from so many people fighting peacefully for their rights," 30-year old Stella Priovolou who was stranded in a central Athens district near the parliament for two hours with her terrified four-year old son Gregory, told Xinhua.
Wednesday's protests coincided with the start of a 48-hour nationwide general strike that paralysed almost all public sectors across Greece, according to unionists.
Public transport was at a standstill. Schools and small businesses were shut, while hospitals ran only with emergency personnel.
ADEDY and GSEE, along with left party members, have called for a new mass demonstration in central Athens on Thursday noon, aiming to encircle the parliament building and prevent deputies from reaching the assembly for the due crucial vote.
A similar attempt last June ahead of another vote on an austerity package ended in clashes between protesters and police.
Greek commentators expect that the draft bill will pass on Thursday with the support of some opposition deputies if PASOK lawmakers "revolt," and that Greece will receive the next tranche of a multi-billion euro aid package initially secured last year. Without the installment, Greece could run out of cash in November.