* Masked groups attack banks, luxury stores
* Unions say over 250,000 join anti-austerity rally
* Government says cuts needed to ensure economic recovery
(Updates arrest figures in second paragraph, adds clashes in
By Stefano Ambrogi and Tim Castle
LONDON, March 26 Black-clad, masked youths
battled riot police and attacked banks and luxury stores in
central London on Saturday, overshadowing a protest by more than
a quarter of a million Britons against government spending cuts.
Police said they had arrested more than 200 people after
anarchist groups splintered from the main union-led protest
march and fought running skirmishes with riot police across the
West End shopping and theatre district.
They threw flares and paint bombs and smashed their way into
branches of HSBC (HSBA.L) and Santander (SANS_p.L) banks. Banks
are blamed by many Britons for a financial crisis that helped
prompt the government to implement the deepest spending cuts in
Hooded figures climbed on to the roof of luxury food store
Fortnum & Mason while other protesters attacked the exclusive
Ritz hotel and started fires at several locations.
Late in the evening, 200-300 protesters occupied Trafalgar
Square where they tried to damage an electronic clock counting
down to the 2012 London Olympic Games before helmeted riot
police moved in to disperse them amid a hail of bottles.
The clashes deflected attention from a peaceful rally to
protest against public spending cuts, tax rises and pension
reforms introduced by the Conservative-led coalition.
Union leaders and police said over 250,000 people joined
the biggest demonstration in the capital since protests against
war in Iraq in 2003.
The coalition, in power since last May, is pushing ahead
with a tough debt reduction programme to virtually eliminate a
budget deficit, running at about 10 percent of GDP, by 2015.
Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition says it is cleaning
up a mess left by the previous Labour government and that
failure to act would expose Britain to market turmoil.
"TOO FAR, TOO FAST"
Police were pelted with paint and what they said were light
bulbs filled with ammonia in scenes which mirrored violence late
last year over higher student tuition fees.
London police commander Bob Broadhurst drew a distinction
between the rally attended by health workers, teachers and
families and the actions of a violent hardcore of around 500.
"It's really just criminality. They've attacked buildings,
broken windows, thrown paint at them and not been afraid to
attack police officers trying to protect those buildings," he
Many European countries have seen mass protests in recent
months as governments slash public spending to try to help their
economies to recover from the global financial crisis.
Unions and the opposition Labour Party say the government is
bringing misery to millions of Britons with unemployment at its
highest level since 1994. The spending cuts are expected to
result in more than 300,000 job losses in the public sector.
Labour leader Ed Miliband told a rally n Hyde Park that the
government was taking Britain back to what he said were the
divisive politics of the 1980s when Conservative Margaret
Thatcher was prime minister.
"There is a need for difficult choices, and some cuts,"
Miliband said. "But, this government is going too far and too
fast and destroying the fabric of our communities."
(Writing by Keith Weir and Olesya Dmitracova; editing by David