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Latvian anti-government protest turns into riot

RIGA (Reuters) - Hundreds of youths destroyed police vehicles, smashed windows and looted stores in Latvia’s capital on Tuesday when an anti-government protest turned into a riot.

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The violence, after a peaceful protest by thousands calling for early elections in a country which last year had to seek a multi-billion economic rescue deal, was the worst seen since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Hundreds of protesters marched on the parliament of the EU and NATO nation. Some tried to storm the building but were dispersed by riot police using teargas and truncheons.

“There was a nice event and then when it finished people decided to go and express their anger and destroy the parliament and then it all spread through Old Riga,” said Anna Gulbe, 19, referring to the picturesque historic part of the capital city.

Once police had control of the area around parliament, a large group of rioters began roaming through the city centre, smashing storefronts and office windows with cobblestones dug up from the streets. Windows at the Finance Ministry and several other buildings were shattered.

A liquor store and a tobacco store were looted.

Rioters, a mixture of Russian-speaking and Latvian youths, overturned a police van and a police car before pounding it to pieces with wooden planks and makeshift weapons.

The riot fizzled out after about three hours when police reinforcements arrived and gradually drove the rioters away. A police spokeswoman said 126 people were arrested. Five protesters and three policemen were injured, she added.

“The state is in crisis and people have just started to get into a bad mood about everything. There has never been such a big riot in Riga, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ance Brasma, 20, a student.

Latvians want change as the economy, formerly the EU’s fastest-growing, crashed and it had to take a 7.5 billion euro (£7 billion) International Monetary Fund and EU loan.

Under the deal, the government has to slash public spending, though it has pledged to preserve social spending in the country of 2.3 million.

“Dissolve parliament, dissolve parliament,” the protesters chanted when dozens of burly men rushed a line of anti-riot police outside the parliament building.

People threw bottles at parliament. As demonstrators pushed forward, police sprayed them with pepper spray.

The larger, earlier demonstration, which included singing of patriotic songs, was similar to protests late in 2007, which eventually forced the then prime minister to resign.

However, the same four parties stayed in coalition and the organisers of the demonstration accused them and Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis of mismanaging the country.

“We have only one demand of the president: call early elections and dissolve parliament,” Artis Pabriks, a former foreign minister who is now an opposition parliamentarian, told the crowd in Old Riga’s central square.

Editing by Alison Williams