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Thousands in austerity protest outside EU summit

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(BRUSSELS) - Thousands of marchers converged Thursday on the venue for a summit of European Union leaders, protesting against austerity measures being introduced throughout the bloc.

The demonstrators responded to union calls to challenge leaders' moves to commit governments to a new 'Euro Pact' to be announced that seeks to moderate wages in a bid to make Europe's economy more competitive against global rivals.

The summit, starting 1600 GMT, gathers the EU's 27 heads of state and government at the heart of the bloc's vast Brussels headquarters district, and marchers targeted the main artery leading to the summit venue.

"The European Commission's annual examination of growth as well as the competitiveness pact launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will drag wages and social rights down to dangerous levels," Belgium's CES union said in a statement.

Even though the original Franco-German proposals were watered down to an extent once transformed into a 'Euro Pact' set for adoption by leaders during the summit, Belgian unions fear their system of index-linked wage rises is under threat.

However their talks were overshadowed by Portugal's political crisis after the prime minister quit there Thursday following a showdown with parliament over his new austerity plan, a move that boosts the chances that Lisbon will need an international financial bailout.

Audrey Lhoest, spokeswoman for the Socialist FGTB, said "about 15,000" people were expected for the Brussels protest, corresponding with advance estimates given by Brussels police.

The main artery leading to the summit headquarters was already packed with protesters by mid-morning.

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