MADRID (AP) — Riot police fired rubber bullets Wednesday at Spanish coal miners protesting in the streets of Madrid over subsidy cuts they fear will jeopardize their meager livelihood.
The miners' march into the capital was the culmination for some of a nearly three-week trek from the regions where they eke out a living. Miners who walked 18 days from northern and eastern mining regions were received as heroes on Tuesday night as they entered the Puerta del Sol, one of the city's main plazas.
Their protest has inspired sympathizers who see the miner's struggle as symbolic of Spain's wider troubles and the unfair burden they believe politicians have put on Spain's middle and working class.
At least one volley of rubber bullets was fired directly at miners, relatives and sympathizers Wednesday as they gathered outside Spain's Industry Ministry after marching up Madrid's main north-south avenue, detonating powerful firecrackers along the way.
The clashes with police and the rubber bullets sent people scurrying for safety.
Olvidio Gonzalez, 67, a retired miner from the northern Asturias region, was hit in leg by a rubber bullet Wednesday and fell to ground. Rescue workers took him away on a stretcher. A huge, round, bloody welt marked the spot where bullet hit.
"We were walking peacefully to get to where the union leaders were speaking and they started to fire indiscriminately. There was no warning," Gonzalez said.
Protester Santiago Oviedo, 24, a physics masters candidate, said he saw protesters hurling fireworks, bottles and cans at police behind a cordon outside the ministry.
People panicked and ran, Oviedo said, adding that he saw at least 10 hit by rubber bullets.
Spain, which is struggling with a severe financial crisis that has sent unemployment and government costs soaring, imposed further austerity measures on the country Wednesday as it unveiled sales tax hikes and spending cuts aimed at shaving €65 billion ($79.85 billion) off the state budget over the next two and a half years.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned Parliament that Spain's future was at stake as it grapples with recession, a bloated deficit and investor wariness of its sovereign debt.
The miners, wearing hardhats and carrying walking sticks, had snaked along the avenue under a hot sun to protest a 63 percent cut in subsidies to mining companies imposed by the government as it battles a deep recession, a bloated deficit and nearly 25 percent unemployment.
David Menendez, 30, from the Asturias region, came down by bus with relatives and fellow miners.
He has worked in the pits for 10 years and fears losing his job in an economy with few prospects for anything else. He wore a miner's hard hat and a black T-shirt that read "Proud to be a miner" on the front and "The miners' struggle" on the back.
"I'm here to defend my work," Menendez said. He added that he was outraged by new tax hikes and austerity measures announced by Rajoy's government just hours before the protest.
"Rajoy is committing crimes against the economy and killing it," Menendez said. "It's just cuts and more cuts."
The new spending cuts, designed to cut €65 billion ($80 billion) of state budgets by 2015, include a new wage cut for civil servants and members of Parliament and a new wave of closures at state-owned companies.
Marcher Pepi Garcia, a 52-year-old hotel waitress, makes €900 ($1,105) per month and has her 35-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son living at home with her. They are unemployed and have never had jobs lasting more than six months.
"I'm not here just to show solidarity," she said. "We have to protest to stop the madness that is happening in Spain."
She added, "Rajoy is defending the banks and the rich. He would rather save the bankers than the miners."
Her grown children "can't even think about getting their own apartments or starting families" due to the miserable economy.
Alejandro Casal, 28, an Airbus factory worker walking with fellow union members, said of the miners: "This isn't only their struggle. It's a struggle for the working class."
"The people need to be here on the street to say 'enough is enough," he said.
Retired miner Gomez said he blamed Rajoy for all of Spain's ills, including unemployment for two of his four grown children.
"He promised he wouldn't touch our health care or education or raise taxes. The reality is everything is falling apart. What's happening here is like a dictatorship, it's unjust and I am so angry."
Daniel Woolls contributed to this report from Madrid.