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Spain burns as strikes bring nation to its knees

Dozens injured and more than 170 arrested as austerity marches descend into violence

A nationwide general strike fuelled by a groundswell of anger against crippling unemployment levels and severe ongoing austerity cuts culminated in dozens of large-scale evening demonstrations across Spain yesterday.

About a quarter of a million protesters took to the streets in Barcelona, with some fringe groups attacking police vans and smashing shop windows until late into the evening. In contrast Madrid's almost equally large demonstration, where the crowds of chanting, whistling protesters filled the emblematic Puerto del Sol square and surrounding streets, was reported as being totally peaceful.

"There's lots of people here, but we need even more. This country is going through an awful situation and its going to get worse," young protester Luis Ferrer, on the dole for three months, told The Independent in Madrid.

"If we don't make ourselves heard now, we never will. I don't think we're going to end up like Greece, but they're using this recession to take away our rights as workers. It's just an excuse."

Jose, a protester in his 20s, added: "The labour reforms they want to bring in are terrible and our wages are awful. They want us to work more and more, put up taxes too, and that's just not on."

Carrying tens of thousands of red trade union flags, the Madrid marchers' mood was largely good humoured, with one group's chants of "we want limousines" drawing raucous laughter. However, most of the messages on posters and badges – "your profit is my recession", "we have no hope" and "no bread and no peace" – were grim.

With more than 110 marches taking place across Spain, by mid-evening police reported 176 arrests and 58 police officers and 46 protesters injured. One demonstrator was seriously hurt in a scuffle in the Basque capital,Vitoria.

Large parts of Spain's heavy industry shut down, public transport systems operated only skeleton services, TV stations went off air, and more than 400 flights were cancelled.

"The old quarter of Bilbao is closed down completely," Alain Laiseka, a Basque journalist, said yesterday. "In the Mercedes factory in Vitoria, which employs thousands of people, just 20 turned up to work this morning." Overall, trade unions claimed 77 per cent of Spaniards had gone on strike. The figure was disputed by the government, and an Interior Ministry official, Cristina Diaz, said support for the strike had been "moderate at best".

Spain's second general strike in 18 months represented Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's first major test of strength since he was elected with an overwhelming majority last November. It came on the eve of the Budget announcement today, in which the 100-day-old government is expected to slash public spending by 15 per cent to keep on track with EU deficit targets.

Politicians from Mr Rajoy's centre-right Partido Popular have repeatedly claimed that the labour reforms, which enable companies to sack employees and cut wages more easily, will go ahead regardless of the strike. Unemployment hit 5 million in January, meaning nearly 23 per cent of the nation is out of work.

One striker in Madrid, Ruben Herranz, a public servant, said: "My wife is looking for work, and as soon as these reforms came out, all the job offers re-appeared with far worse conditions. In my work a lot of people voted for the PP in November and they're striking now, because they've realised that although they wanted change, they've gone from the frying pan into the fire."

Italy shocked by self-immolation protests

A Moroccan worker in Italy set himself on fire yesterday in protest at not being paid for months, a day after an Italian businessman set himself alight over a tax dispute, police said.

The 27-year-old construction worker is in hospital after dousing himself in petrol and lighting it outside Verona's city hall in northern Italy. Police said the man told them he was desperate after not being paid for four months.

On Wednesday, a 58-year-old businessman tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire in his car outside a tax office in nearby Bologna. His appeal against a demand for thousands of euros in allegedly unpaid taxes had been rejected, according to Italian media reports. He is being treated for severe burns.