Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Romania protests over health bill continue

(Reuters) - Romanian protesters clashed with riot police in Bucharest on Sunday and demonstrated in other large cities, as protests spread for a fourth day despite a government decision to cancel an unpopular healthcare reform bill.

The protests began on Thursday in support of a deputy health minister who quit after criticizing a draft bill that would have added private firms to the state health sector.

The cabinet withdrew the bill on Friday, but that did little to assuage the demonstrators, who returned to the streets to express general anger at a government that has imposed severe spending cuts.

On Sunday evening, demonstrators threw rocks at riot police who in turn fired teargas into the crowd. Rubbish bins were torched near the University of Bucharest in the capital centre. As riot police tried to disburse protesters, the confrontation moved towards Unirii square, also in downtown.

Protesters had started gathering in the afternoon, with numbers growing to an estimated 800 in the evening, and several hundred students were expected to join in. Demonstrators called for the resignation of President Traian Basescu and of the centrist coalition government of Prime Minister Emil Boc.

Carrying whistles and Romanian flags, protesters chanted "Resignation" and held banners that said "We want respect" and "No more corruption." Hundreds of people also protested in large Romanian cities like Cluj, Timisoara and Iasi.

The government has taken painful measures under a two-year aid deal led by the International Monetary Fund - including raising value added tax and cutting state wages - to shore up state finances and stabilize the leu currency. The steps have been deeply unpopular as Romania recovers from recession.

Protests started on Thursday after the resignation of Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat, who had criticized the draft healthcare reform bill.

"Arafat was only the spark," said Jean Sandulescu, 63, a railroad worker. "But after everything they have done, we want them (the government) to go."

Riot police estimated up to 4,000 Romanians staged protests on Saturday in more than 20 cities, although the actual numbers may be higher. Demonstrations were largely peaceful, but in Bucharest some protesters threw stones at riot police who shot tear gas into the crowd on Saturday evening.

Traffic on one of Bucharest's busiest streets was temporarily blocked and a few dozen people, including three riot police, needed medical attention.

Riot police removed 29 demonstrators from protests saying they had instigated violence and the blocking of traffic.

"It is unlikely the government will cave in to protests, although they pile more pressure on the ruling Democrat Liberal Party, which is clearly losing even more support," said political commentator Mircea Marian.

"Let's see what next week will bring, although I don't think protests can continue for much longer. People have jobs."

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