NICOSIA (Reuters) - Workers at Cyprus's state electricity utility clashed with police in a rare explosion of anger on Monday over government privatisation plans under a 10 billion euro international bailout.
In a rowdy protest at parliament, around 300 to 400 demonstrators burst through police barricades in central Nicosia while lawmakers were debating provisions of a privatisation law with the island's finance minister.
Cyprus is required to approve legislation governing the future disposal of state assets under a three-year economic reform programme brokered with the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission a year ago.
Monday's protest, which left two demonstrators slightly injured, is unusual. The island has seen little of the unrest stirred by bailouts in other euro zone nations, even though its aid conditions were among the harshest - closure of a failing bank and forcing large depositors in a second to help recapitalise the lender.
Under bailout terms, Cyprus is called upon to privatise the electricity authority EAC, the Cyprus Ports Authority and Cyprus telecoms CyTA by 2018, raising 1.4 billion euros (£1.1 billion).
Further consultations are expected this week, and the legislation is expected to be debated by the full parliament on February 27.
Labour unions representing workers called the bill an abomination, and vowed to step up action.
"Every member of parliament will be held accountable for this crime perpetuated against semi-government corporations," said Andreas Panorkos, a representative of electricity workers.
For security reasons, and after electricity was cut to parliament, the meeting of parliament's finance committee was interrupted and moved to another part of the building.
Lawmakers said consultations on the legislation would continue this week.
"Even without electricity and (working in) darkness we have to do our duty. We cannot stop examining serious issues we are unfortunately called upon to review in view of the financial predicaments of the state," said Nicolas Papadopoulos, head of parliament's finance committee and leader of the Democratic Party, a junior governing coalition partner.
His party on Friday announced it was poised to quit the government in disagreement over a decision by the Cypriot government to re-start peace talks with estranged Turkish Cypriots, who run a breakaway state in north Cyprus. Party officials have however said it would not affect Cyprus's commitments under its international bailout programme.
After bursting through metal barricades and hurling water bottles and citrus fruit from nearby trees, demonstrators spilled over a metal fence and attempted to burst through glass doors, heckling lawmakers.
The Mediterranean island does not have a culture of street protest, with the incidents catching police flat-footed.
The government said "vandalism" would not be tolerated and it would invoke legislation banning strikes in essential services, which include electricity and telecom utilities.
"Any attempt to blackmail the government and holding essential services hostage is totally unacceptable," government spokesman Christos Stylianides said.
The government says it has no choice to comply with calls to privatise state-owned assets, warning that international lenders could withhold a new tranche of aid worth 236 million euros if it is not approved by parliament by March 5.
It has also assured workers that their employment conditions and pension rights would not be affected.