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Romanian PM calls for unity as thousands protest

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania's prime minister on Tuesday used the country's national holiday to call for unity, as thousands of anti-government protesters angry at the government's failure to reverse falling living standards turned their ire toward state media.

Prime Minister Emil Boc addressed Parliament in a special session on the country's Day of Unity, urging Romanians to work together to overcome economic hardship. The government has been battling to contain 12 days of demonstrations fueled by frustration pent up since the country's troubled transition to democracy after its 1989 revolution.

Some 5,000 people jeered the government in the northeast city of Iasi, calling for early elections. Thousands also massed outside the government in Bucharest to rally against harsh austerity measures and marched to the headquarters of the public television station, which they accused of having a pro-government bias.

"We have had enough of the government," said Teodor Ciodariu, a 58-year-old retired interior ministry officer. "The news they (Romanian public television) broadcast does not reflect reality."

Protesters then marched downtown to University Square, which has been a focal point for anti-government protests ever since the anti-communist uprising against the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Romania signed up for a €20-billion ($26 billion) loan with the IMF, European Union and World Bank in 2009 to help pay salaries and pensions, when the economy shrunk by more than 7 percent.

In 2010, the government hiked sales tax from 19 to 24 percent, and cut public workers salaries by one-fourth to reduce the budget deficit. Romanians are also angry over cronyism, widespread corruption and a perception that the government is not interested in the problems of ordinary people in this nation of 22 million.

A 21-year Romanian Army officer became a symbol of the protest late Monday. Lt. Alexandru Gheorghe's call for the nation's dignity to be restored attracted widespread attention because it is illegal for Army members to protest publicly.

Gheorghe said he traveled some 500 kilometers (312 miles) to Bucharest from his military base to join the protesters.

"I can no longer bear the way we are insulted," by the current government, he said in comments broadcast on Antena 3 TV.

"I saw old people beaten (in the protests) and said to myself that we, the officers, who could die tomorrow in a mission in Afghanistan, must have the courage to fight and tell the truth here in our country," Gheorghe said.

Romania has about 1,700 troops serving in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led force there.

The defense ministry said it was investigating what action to take against Gheorghe.

Boc also appointed a new foreign minister to replace Teodor Baconschi, who was fired monday for making insulting comments about the protesters. Cristian Diaconescu, a lawmaker and supporter of President Traian Basescu, previously served as foreign minister in 2009.