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Protests continue in Romania for 4th day

BUCHAREST (AP) — Protests continued in Romanian cities yesterday reflecting widespread anger against austerity measures and an unpopular government.

The protests, in their fourth day, are the most serious since President Traian Basescu came to power in 2004. They are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protests began Thursday in support of a health official who resigned because he opposed government health care reforms. Basescu withdrew the health care bill Friday, but protests continued.

Anger has mainly been directed against the once-popular Romanian president. Basescu, 60, vowed to be a hands-on president when he came to power in 2004. He regularly gave interviews in supermarkets, was filmed dancing with his wife in restaurants and enjoyed a reputation as a man of the people.

The former ship captain, who is staunchly pro-American, has always relished a political fight. He was suspended by Parliament in 2007, but reinstated after a national referendum.

He narrowly defeated former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana in the 2009 presidential runoff to be re-elected for a five-year mandate, which ends in 2014.

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But Romanians have become disenchanted with the president, particularly with the economy in a downturn.

Critics say he is too outspoken, makes statements that should be the government's responsibility and has grown increasingly argumentative which is inappropriate for his office.

In recent months, he has publicly expressed dislike for journalists, former King Michael and the highly respected public health official Raed Arafat, whose resignation prompted the protests which started on Thursday.

On yesterday, hundreds of people of all ages noisily protested in Bucharest's University Square, a day after demonstrators clashed with police there. They shouted "Down with Basescu!", calling for early elections and held caricatures of the powerful Tourism Minister Elena Udrea, a close aide of Basescu and Basescu's daughter, Elena Basescu, who is a lawmaker in the European Parliament. Hundreds rallied in the cities of Iasi, Cluj, Deva and Galati. On Saturday, more than 3,000 protested in cities outside Bucharest, police said.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said the government together with coalition partners would draw up a new health care bill Monday consulting politicians and civil groups. He spoke after visiting a police officer who was hospitalized after he was hit by a stone in the head in Saturday's protest.

"The solution is dialogue, not throwing bricks left and right which can endanger lives," Boc said. Nine people received medical treatment in Saturday's protest.

Basescu has also not commented on the protests. He told Romanians to be proud of their history yesterday in a message sent to mark the birthday of Romania's national poet Mihai Eminescu.

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