Historic cinemas, cafes, shops and banks were set ablazein central Athens on Sunday as black-masked protesters fought Greek police outside parliament, while inside lawmakers looked set to defy the rage by endorsing a new EU/IMF austerity deal.
State television reported violence spread to the islands of Corfu and Crete, the northern city of Thessaloniki and towns in central Greece. Shops were being looted in the capital in the worst breakdown of order since 2008 when violence gripped Greece for weeks after police shot a 15-year-old schoolboy.
As parliament prepared to vote on a new 130 billion euro bailoutto save Greece from a messy bankruptcy, a Reuters photographer saw buildings in Athens engulfed in flames and huge plumes of smoke rose in the night sky.
"We are facing destruction. Our country, our home, has become ripe for burning, the center of Athens is in flames. We cannot allow populism to burn our country down," conservative lawmaker Costis Hatzidakis told parliament.
The air in Syntagma Square outside parliament was thick with tear gas as riot police fought running battles with youths who smashed marble balustrades and hurled stones and petrol bombs.
Terrified Greeks and tourists fled the rock-strewn streets and the clouds of stinging gas, cramming into hotel lobbies for shelter as lines of riot police struggled to contain the mayhem.
State NET television reported that trouble had also broken out in Heraklion, capital of the tourist island of Crete, as well as the towns of Volos and Agrinio in central Greece.
Despite the chaos, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos warned that Greeks faced "unimaginably harsher" sacrifices if parliament rejected the package, which demands deep pay, pension and job cuts, when it votes later in the evening.
On the streets many businesses were ablaze, including the neo-classical home to the Attikon cinema dating from 1870 and a building housing the Asty, an underground cinema used by the Gestapo during World War Two as a torture chamber.
As fighting raged for hours, protesters threw home made bombs made from gas canisters as riot police advanced across the square on the crowds, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Loud booms from the protests could be heard inside parliament.
After days of dire warnings and threats of rebellion, parliament began debating a bill setting out 3.3 billion euros ($4.4 billion) in wage, pension and job cuts this year alone, to secure funds Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy next month.
Venizelos told parliament that the alternative to the international bailout - bankruptcy and a departure from the euro zone - would be far worse for Greeks.
"The choice is not between sacrifice and no sacrifices at all, but between sacrifices and unimaginably harsher ones," he told a stormy debate expected to run well into the night.
One small party has already pulled out of the coalition of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos in protest against the terms of the rescue package from the European Union and International Monetary Fund - Greece's second since 2010.
A number of lawmakers from the two biggest government parties, socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy, have also threatened to rebel but their numbers did not appear to be enough to sink the bill.
Greece needs the international funds before March 20 to meet debt repayments of 14.5 billion euros, or suffer a chaotic default which could shake the entire euro zone.