Thousands protest against austerity in Romania

BUCHAREST Sat Jan 14, 2012 3:16pm EST

BUCHAREST Jan 14 (Reuters) - Thousands of Romanians staged a third straight day of protests on Saturday in the capital Bucharest and other cities, as anger over a healthcare reform bill widened into protest against government austerity measures.

The government pulled its draft healthcare reform bill on Friday after street protests and criticism, but that has failed to assuage the anger of crowds, who called on Saturday for early elections and the resignation of President Traian Basescu.

Protesters chanted and carried banners that said "Stop thievery", "You lied to us and robbed us" and "Leave and let us be". Some scuffled with riot police in the capital.

"It is important for protesters to understand that we are not against them, we are here to protect them and ... make sure the law is respected," said Georgian Enache, spokesman for Bucharest riot police, who added he didn't have estimates as to how many protesters had gathered in downtown Bucharest.

Protests started on Thursday in support of Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat, who resigned this week after criticising the draft healthcare reform bill and being confronted by President Basescu, a supporter of the project.

Basescu told Romania's centrist coalition government to pull the bill late on Friday. Opponents said the bill lacked detail on private sector involvement and risked further damaging the outdated medical system.

Saturday's protests expanded from support for Arafat to general discontent with the government's unpopular austerity measures, taken under an aid deal led by the International Monetary Fund to shore up public finances and prop up the leu currency. (Reporting by Luiza Ilie)

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