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Rage against austerity: Protesters in gas masks, helmets clash with Greek police

In renewed unrest, workers in Greece walked off their jobs over austerity measures, while in Spain dozens of protesters clashed with police. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Updated at 8:59 a.m. ET: ATHENS, Greece -- Demonstrators wearing helmets and gas masks and armed with sticks clashed with police in the Greek capital on Wednesday, as a general strike was held to protest the government’s austerity drive.

Riot police fought with the protesters wearing the black clothes favored by anarchist groups for about 45 minutes in the central Syntagma Square, letting off tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

The demonstrators let off flares and a tent in the center of the square advertising an air show was set on fire.

The anarchist group appeared to be trying to cause as much damage in the square as possible.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

A Molotov cocktail explodes beside riot police officers near Syntagma Square in Athens on Wednesday.

There were also violent clashes between anti-austerity protesters and riot police in Spain on Tuesday. Police there told The Associated Press that 38 people were arrested and 64 people injured when officers clashed with protesters demonstrating against cutbacks and tax hikes.

Several thousand people converged on the Spanish Parliament building in central Madrid where more than 1,000 riot police blocked off access to the building, forcing protesters to crowd nearby avenues. Police baton-charged protesters at the front of the march and some demonstrators broke down barricades and threw rocks and bottles, the AP said. Reuters reported that police fired rubber bullets.

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In Greece, perhaps the country worst-affected by the crisis, workers walked off their jobs for the first general strike since a coalition government was formed in June. 

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

Spanish riot police clash with protesters during demonstrations over the government's austerity policies near the Spanish parliament on Tuesday.

The Greek government is struggling to push through more punishing austerity measures demanded by the country’s creditors.

'Only the beginning'
Initially, Syntagma Square was peaceful as tens of thousands of protesters arrived to the sound of drums. There were many elderly and middle-aged people and mothers with children among the crowd.

The strike was called by the country's two biggest unions that represent half the workforce.

"We call on everyone to take part in the strike and resist the austerity measures that hurt Greek people and the economy," Despoina Spanou, of the ADEDY labor group, said.  "This strike is only the beginning in our fight."

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Much of the union's anger is directed at spending cuts worth nearly $15.55 billion over the next two years that Greece has promised the European Union and International Monetary Fund in an effort to unlock its next tranche of aid.

While Greece gears up for more protests against austerity cuts, the health care system is in tatters with little cash for drugs or doctors. ITV's James Mates reports.

The bulk of those cuts are expected from slashing wages, pensions and welfare benefits, heaping a new wave of misery on Greeks who say repeated rounds of austerity have pushed them to the brink and failed to transform the country for the better.

A survey by the MRB polling agency last week showed that more than 90 percent of Greeks believe the planned cuts are unfair and burden the poor, with the vast majority expecting more austerity in coming years.

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With Greece in its fifth year of recession and no light at the end of the austerity tunnel, analysts warn that Greek patience is wearing thin and a strong public backlash could tear apart the weak conservative-led coalition.

During the protests in Spain Tuesday, people chanted outside the parliament, "Let us in, we want to evict you.” 

Evictions have soared in Spain as thousands of people have defaulted on bank loans.

Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP

Thousands of demonstrators march to the Spanish parliament on Tuesday.

Protesters said they were fed up with cuts to public salaries and health and education. They are also angry that the state has poured funds into crumbled banks while it is cutting social benefits.

PhotoBlog: Spain prepares more austerity, protesters clash with police

"My annual salary has dropped by 8000 euros and if it falls much further I won't be able to make ends meet," Luis Rodriguez, 36, a firefighter who joined the protest, told Reuters. He said he is considering leaving Spain to find a better quality of life.

"We're protesting against the cuts. I've had to give up my apartment," said Ondina, a 30-year-old fine arts graduate who is without a job. She said she can't survive on an unemployment benefit of $340 a month.

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With this year's budget deficit target looking untenable, the conservative government is now looking at such things as cuts in inflation-linked pensions, taxes on stock transactions, "green taxes" on emissions or eliminating tax breaks.

Spain, also badly hit by the euro zone debt crisis, has been hit by a second recession since 2009 that has put one in four workers out of a job.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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