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Originally published Monday, January 16, 2012 at 4:09 AM

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PM warns violence could destabilize Romania

More than 1,000 demonstrators jeered government austerity measures in downtown Bucharest on Monday as Romania's prime minister warned that violent clashes like those that left 59 injured over the weekend could jeopardize stability and economic growth.

Associated Press

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BUCHAREST, Romania —

More than 1,000 demonstrators jeered government austerity measures in downtown Bucharest on Monday as Romania's prime minister warned that violent clashes like those that left 59 injured over the weekend could jeopardize stability and economic growth.

Protesters who gathered in freezing temperatures for a fifth day of demonstrations chanted "Freedom!" and held banners saying "Hunger and poverty have gripped Romania!" They waved flags with the center ripped out, a symbol of the 1989 uprising against former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A car parked in the vicinity was set on fire but firefighters put out the blaze.

There were no reports of injuries.

There were smaller protests in another dozen Romanians cities, but it was not clear how many people had gathered around the country.

On Sunday, police clashed with a small contingent of around 1,000 protesters in the capital. Tear gas and flares were used to repel demonstrators hurling stones and firebombs.

Interior minister Traian Igas said Monday that around 8,700 people attended weekend demonstrations, but only in Bucharest did the protests turn violent, when - according to interior ministry officials - fans of football clubs infiltrated the demonstrations and wreaked havoc in the city.

Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu said the windows of shops, banks and bus stations were smashed, and street lights vandalized.

Prime Minister Emil Boc on Monday called the violence "unacceptable" and said it "cannot be tolerated." He promised, however, that a controversial health law allowing for some privatization of emergency services will be redrafted.

Boc urged Romanians to understand that tough austerity measures are needed to avoid a default. "We understand the hardships Romanians are facing. ... The crisis has been harsher than we imagined," he said.

But Monday's protesters were not convinced that the austerity measures were necessary.

"We are staying here, even though it is freezing cold," said one protester who identified himself only as Radu, wrapped in a thick coat, scarf and hat as snow fell. "We have a real backbone not like the government which turned its back on us."

The protesters included TV engineer Adrian Sobaru, who become a symbol for anti-government demonstrations after he dove from a balcony onto the floor of Romania's parliament in December 2010 to criticize austerity measures.

He said he had come to support Health Ministry official Raed Arafat - a Palestinian with Romanian citizenship - who resigned last week after opposing the government health care plans that sparked the current protests. "He is a moral beacon for us," Sobaru told Antena 3 TV. "He makes us proud that he is Romanian."

In 2009, Romania took a two-year euro20 billion ($27.5 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank as its economy shrank by 7.1 percent. It imposed harsh austerity measures under the agreement, reducing public wages by 25 percent and increasing taxes.

Anger has mounted over the wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes and widespread corruption.

Alis Grasu of Bucharest's ambulance services said 59 people have suffered injuries during the disturbances, 23 were briefly hospitalized and three are still in the hospital. Police official Aurel Moise said about 250 people were fined for their conduct and 36 will be investigated.

Authorities urged peaceful protesters to distance themselves from troublemakers at future marches.

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