Civil servants protesting against austerity measures clash with riot police and set fire to a bus on Rio Branco, the main avenue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, while firefighters attempt to put out the blaze, on February 1, 2017
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Brazilian riot police used tear gas and stun grenades in Rio de Janeiro Wednesday to break up a protest against austerity measures aimed at rescuing the state from near bankruptcy.
The center of the city that less than half a year ago was hosting the Olympic Games turned into a battlefield at lunch hour.
Police in gas masks fired waves of gas into crowds of hundreds of people attempting to gather outside the state legislature. People ran from stun grenades that flashed and boomed repeatedly.
Most protesters were peaceful, but television footage showed a group trying to break through barriers protecting the state assembly, where deputies were considering austerity measures.
As police chased protesters, usually busy avenues around the assembly emptied of traffic. Nervous shopkeepers pulled down metal shutters and went home.
Protesters included police officers who haven't been paid fully for months, sanitation workers, pensioners and staff from the state court system.
They demanded payment of late salaries and the scrapping of austerity measures under consideration in the state assembly.
These include raising from 11 to 14 percent the pension withholdings from state employees, workforce cuts, and privatization of the Cedae sanitation utility.
"We haven't received our overtime pay since July (including for) the Olympic Games," said one striking police officer, who would only give her first name, Leticia.
"We're still waiting for our final salary for last year and we haven't received our salaries for January, when it's now February," she said angrily.
Violence spread, with gangs of youths wearing scarves over their faces setting fire to garbage cans and a bus, and attempting to attack police, who responded with barrages of stun grenades and smoke bombs until late afternoon.
- Corrupt leaders -
With its famous capital city, oil industry, thriving tourism and success in hosting the Olympics and the 2014 football World Cup, Rio de Janeiro is a corner of Brazil that would seem to have it all.
But the sharp slide in Brazil's economic fortunes and runaway corruption have turned Rio into a financial basket case, plagued by rising violent crime.
Protesters were furious that the austerity measures effectively ask them to help patch holes that they blame on corrupt leaders.
There was particular anger against governor Sergio Cabral who stepped down in 2014 and was arrested last year on charges of stealing tens of millions of dollars from construction projects -- including for the World Cup.
"We're demonstrating because our government broke the state with all this corruption in Rio and now they want workers to pay the bill," said Alzimar Andrade, 47, who heads the SindJustica union representing court system employees.
"We will not accept that," he said.
Protesters also expressed dismay at the ferocity of the police response.
"Just look at that," Tadeu Gomes, an employee of the sanitation utility, said, pointing to smoke grenades raining down on a crossroads nearby.
"Things are only getting worse. People have no confidence anymore," Gomes, 47, said.
Rogerio Ramos, 53, who owns a small stationary shop that found itself in the midst of the violence, expressed the frustration of many entrepreneurs already struggling through Brazil's deepest recession in a century.
"This is terrible for business," he said, pulling down the steel shutters for the day. "The Olympics didn't resolve a thing. They just made it all worse."