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Protesters gather for fourth straight day in Romania

By Liliana Ciobanu, for CNN
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sun January 15, 2012
 Romanian police take position in the center of Bucharest on January 15, 2012 during a demonstration against the government's austerity program and Romanian President Traian Basescu.
Romanian police take position in the center of Bucharest on January 15, 2012 during a demonstration against the government's austerity program and Romanian President Traian Basescu.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Protesters gather in Bucharest and 18 other Romanian cities
  • It was the fourth day of protests against government austerity measures
  • Clashes between police and protesters left 17 injured Saturday in Bucharest
  • The demonstrations are the largest against President Basescu since his 2004 election

Bucharest, Romania (CNN) -- Protesters seeking the ouster of Romanian President Traian Basescu and early elections gathered for a fourth straight day Sunday in a main square of Bucharest, the capital, and 18 other cities in the Eastern European nation.

The demonstrations, which included clashes between police and protesters Saturday in University Square that injured 17 people, are the most serious since Basescu's election in 2004.

See images from the protests

Some of the hundreds who showed up at the square on Sunday demanded justice and blamed the government and austerity measures for their poor living standards.

"We have no financial security. My husband and I are retired but we are sharing our modest income with our children because they are jobless," said Rodica Ganea, who described being asked during hospital visits to pay for "medicines, syringes, bandages, everything."

"I can't afford it," Ganea said. Another woman, 64-year-old Marilena Salan, described similar circumstances.

"My kids are university graduates but they are jobless," Salan said. "They are forced to break up their families, leave their kids home and go abroad to work. My nephews are growing up without their parents. This is unacceptable."

On Saturday, police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters gathered in University Square to demonstrate against government austerity cuts.

The protesters blocked traffic, waving flags with the centers ripped out to symbolize the 1989 communist revolution. Others carried signs reading "Liberty" and "Down with President Basescu."

Police fired tear gas in an attempt to calm the crowd, and 17 people were hospitalized in the ensuing chaos with 50 fined for disturbing public peace. The injured included a local journalist and five police officers, one severely injured when demonstrators stoned him.

The protests broke out Thursday after the resignation of Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat, an opponent of health care reforms proposed by the government.

Facing public pressure, Basescu decided to scrap the reforms Friday, saying he made the decision after realizing that a majority of those in the medical system opposed the change.

"The hospitals don't want the change, the (doctors) don't want the change and neither does the emergency health care system," Basescu said.

Critics had argued that the proposal favored the private health care system by allowing access to government funds while the state-funded system lacks financial aid.

The protests follow several unpopular measures taken by the government over the past two years. After receiving a loan of 20 billion euros from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in 2009, the government cut salaries in the public sector by 25% a year later to enforce austerity measures recommended by the IMF.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said on Sunday that a new series of debates on the health care issue will start Monday, with the intention of creating a new health care law.

Over the past three days, protesters also held demonstrations in other cities including Cluj, Timisoara, Iasi and Targu Mures.

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