Greek lawmakers pass crucial austerity bill

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek lawmakers approved a crucial austerity bill Thursday needed to tap €110 billion ($140 billion) in bailout loans from other euro-zone countries and the International Monetary Fund, as major crowds gathered outside parliament to protest the measures.

The bill passed with a vote of 172-121.

Greeks have been outraged by the measures, which slash salaries and pensions for civil servants and hike consumer taxes. Anger spilled over Wednesday when major demonstrations during a nationwide general strike turned violent. Three people were killed after becoming trapped in a burning bank torched by demonstrators.

On Thursday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the austerity bill and to protest the deaths, police said.

Inside parliament, in a dramatic session preceded by heated debate, Prime Minister George Papandreou expelled three of his deputies who abstained and did not vote in favor of the austerity bill, expelling them from his Socialist party's parliamentary group. The move leaves him with 157 deputies in the 300-memeber parliament, still a comfortable majority.

Conservative opposition leader Andonis Samaras followed suit, kicking out former Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis who broke party ranks voted in favor of the bill. The main opposition party now holds just 90 seats.

Papandreou and his finance minister insisted the austerity measures and the rescue package they are linked to were the only hope for the country to avoid bankruptcy.

"Today things are simple. Either we vote and implement the deal, or we condemn Greece to bankruptcy," Papandreou said before the vote.

"Some people want that, and are speculating (on it), and hope that it will happen," he said, referring to speculative attacks that have been blamed for raising Greece's borrowing costs to unsustainable levels. "We, I, will not allow that. We will not allow speculation against our country, and bankruptcy to happen."

The rescue loans are aimed at containing the debt crisis and keeping Greece's troubles from spreading to other countries with vulnerable state finances such as Portugal and Spain. The money will come from the International Monetary Fund and the 15 other governments whose countries use the euro.

Fears of Greek default have undermined the euro, and while the current package should keep Greece from immediate bankruptcy its long term prospects are unclear. Its growth prospects are weak, and the population's willingness to accept cutbacks may wane, leading some economists to predict an eventual debt restructuring somewhere down the road.

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said the government had no choice but to impose the austerity measures, which were being rushed through Parliament as urgent legislation because the country was two weeks away from default, with €8.5 billion worth of bonds maturing May 19.

"The state's coffers don't have that money," Papaconstantinou said. "Because today ... the country can't borrow it from the international market. And because the only way for the country to avoid bankruptcy and suspension of payments is to take the money from our European partners and the International Monetary Fund."

But in order to receive the funds, Greece must agree to a three-year austerity program.

"We are asking for loans from countries that also have deficits and from countries that are also the subject of speculative attacks. And for those to be granted, we must persuade them that we are putting our house in order," Papaconstantinou said.

But the opposition lambasted the government for imposing measures that are too harsh for the population to bear.

"The dose of the medicine you are administering is in danger of killing the patient," Samaras said.

"You know that these measures have sparked a social explosion ... The citizens of this country have to believe there is a way out. Because whoever cuts pensions of €700 cannot convince anyone."

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Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.

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