Greece crisis: EU welcomes Greek MPs' austerity vote

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Media captionClashes in Athens continue overnight with tear gas and smoke from fires filling the city centre

The European Union has welcomed the Greek parliament's vote in favour of a severe austerity package that has sparked strikes and violent protests.

The EU said the move was a vital step back from what it called the "very grave scenario of default".

Greek MPs approved the deeply unpopular package of spending cuts and tax hikes by 155 votes to 138.

The country is heavily in debt and the measures are needed to win the latest tranche of a 110bn-euro (£98bn) loan.

Greek MPs are to hold a second vote on Thursday on a bill outlining how the austerity package is to be implemented.

Wavering support

Wednesday's vote prompted a furious response from protesters in Athens. Demonstrators gathered outside parliament on the second of a two-day strike.

Sporadic violent clashes were continuing in the capital in the early hours of Thursday between masked protesters - armed with stones and sticks - and riot police firing tear gas and stun grenades.

Despite the unrest, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy welcomed the result as a "vote of national responsibility" paving the way for a second aid package.

"The country has taken an important step forward along the necessary path of fiscal consolidation and growth-enhancing structural reform," they said in a joint statement.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany - Greece's biggest creditor - said the vote was "really good news", and important for the stability of the euro as a whole.

The package of tax rises and budget cuts - worth about 28bn euros over five years - had been championed by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Had it been rejected, Greece could have run out of money within weeks. The EU and the International Monetary Fund have demanded that the measures are implemented before they extend further loans to Greece.

Mr Papandreou had faced wavering support from within his governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) which has a slim majority, with just 155 seats out of 300 in parliament.

But in the end, only one Pasok deputy voted against the package. There were two abstentions, while five deputies merely noted they were present.

Once news that the vote had passed trickled out to Syntagma Square outside parliament, fighting broke out with a new level of brutality, says the BBC's Malcolm Brabant in the Greek capital.

The riot police engaged in behaviour that would never be tolerated in other parts of Europe, throwing stones back at the protesters, says our correspondent.

Protesters set fire to a post office on the ground floor of the finance ministry in the square. Dozens of police and protesters were injured in the violence.

Greek unions are angry that the government's austerity programme will impose taxes on those earning the minimum wage, following months of other cuts that have seen unemployment rise to more than 16%.

Once passed, European officials will start to finalise the details of a second bail-out, worth an estimated 120bn euros, designed to help Greece pay its debts until the end of 2014.

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