Rioting breaks out in Athens as MPs prepare to vote

Parliament is expected to approve early on Monday morning the terms of Greece?s new loan agreement despite extensive rioting outside Parliament, which led to dozens of stores and buildings being looted and set on fire.

The chaotic scenes in downtown Athens broke out at about 6 p.m., a few hours after MPs began to debate the content of the loan deal, which contains unpopular measures such as cuts to pensions and the minimum wage.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered outside Parliament for a peaceful anti-austerity protest but the mood soured when hooded self-styled anarchists clashed with police. Assailants threw Molotov cocktails and rocks while riot police responded with copious amounts of tear gas.

Within hours, several buildings in Athens were ablaze, including those housing the historic Attiko and Asty cinemas. Branches of big foreign chains and banks were targeted, with a Starbucks coffee shop among those that went up in flames.

Authorities said that more than 40 police officers were injured. More than 50 protesters were taken to the hospital. It was not clear late last night if anyone had been seriously injured. All the parties condemned the violence but also questioned why the police let the situation get out of hand.

Meanwhile, MPs were involved in an intense debate in Parliament. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos had a weighty copy of the loan agreement thrown at him by a Communist Party lawmaker as he attempted to argue that it was vital for deputies to approve the new agreement.

?The situation is very clear. Tonight at midnight, before the markets open, the Greek Parliament must send the message that our nation can and will [support the deal],? Venizelos said.

?Today we must understand, and persuade Greek citizens, that when you have to choose between bad and worse, you will choose the bad to avoid the worst,? he added.

The line taken by Venizelos was repeated by PASOK leader George Papandreou and New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras. Both warned that they would expel from their parties any lawmakers who did not vote for the loan agreement. It was expected that about 20 PASOK MPs and fewer than 20 ND deputies would vote against the deal, but with 236 lawmakers the coalition government did not seem to be in danger of losing the vote.

?If we do not dare today, we will live a catastrophe,? Papandreou said.

?What do you want? A country where food will be handed out with food stamps and where we will have no fuel?? Samaras angrily told a dissenting deputy.

Addressing the nation late on Saturday, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos warned that failure to back the bill would mean a disorderly default and ?set the country on a disastrous adventure.?

?It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion,? he said.

Papademos was expected to repeat this message to MPs . Should the loan agreement be approved, the prime minister is expected to conduct a reshuffle on Monday. Some reports suggested that the cabinet shake-up would be extensive