Anti-government riot hits Latvia
A 10,000-strong rally in Riga protesting the Latvian government's response to the economic crisis descended into rioting as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police and attempted to storm parliament.
The group of mostly young demonstrators broke away from the main peaceful protest, smashing windows of the parliament building and hurling rocks and snowballs at police, reports the Baltic Times.
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Authorities tried to corral the troublemakers into a side street, but the youths overturned a police van and set it alight, subsequently also breaking windows at the finance ministry and looting a liquor store.
In response, police used mace and truncheons, baton-charging the rioters and ultimately dispersing the crowd after three hours of ructions.
Police arrested 126 protesters, while a total of 30 were injured, three of whom were police officers.
The demonstration, the largest the country has seen since gaining independence in 1991, had been called by opposition parties and trade unions to protest planned austerity measures and demand the resignation of centre-right Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis over his handling of the economic crisis.
Protest organisers distanced themselves from the violence, but said they buttressed the argument that the government should resign.
Latvia has won an emergency €7.5 billion package of loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to bolster its battered economy, hit hard by the ongoing global financial crisis.
However, the money come in return for an agreed package of austerity measures. Wide-ranging structural reforms and wage reductions, particularly in the public sector have been approved by the country's parliament.
Public sector wages are to be slashed by 15 percent in 2009 alongside deep cuts to government expenditures of 1 billion Latvian lats (€1.41 billion), a slashing of income tax and increases in VAT rates. The country aims to limit its budget deficit to five percent of GDP in 2009, falling still further to three percent by 2011.
In total, the package of austerity measures equals seven percent of GDP.
The Latvian economy is predicted to contract between five and eight percent this year.
Mr Godmanis later dismissed the protests on television, saying they should not be compared with the ‘Singing Revolution', the mass demonstrations from 1987-1990 that culminated in the independence of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union.