Greece's May Day rallies turn clashes / PHOTO

Greek police fired tear gas on youths as marchers swarmed through central Athens to protest austerity measures.

Greece's May Day rallies turn clashes / PHOTO

Greek police fired tear gas on youths Saturday as marchers swarmed through central Athens to protest unprecedented austerity cuts needed for EU and IMF loans worth as much as 120 billion euros.

At one rally, police fired two or three rounds of tear gas against 20 protesters trying to reach parliament. The protesters retreated and the march, which was otherwise largely peaceful, continued, a Reuters witness said.

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In the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, more than 5,000 people gathered for demonstrations.

Shops were closed, ships stayed docked and the streets of the capital were unusually empty except for protesters marching towards parliament, metres away from the Finance Ministry where EU and IMF officials have been meeting for days to agree a new set of austerity measures, Reuters said.

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"No to the IMF's junta!" protesters chanted, referring to the military dictatorship which ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

"Hands off our rights! IMF and EU Commission out!," the protesters shouted as they marched to parliament.

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The government is set to announce more sweeping spending cuts through 2012 to win support for an international loan package worth euro45 billion ($60 billion) this year alone.

The cabinet was to meet Sunday morning to finalize the measures, with Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou expected to announce them at noon and then immediately fly to Brussels for an emergency meeting of eurozone finance ministers.

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A common call among many of those interviewed in the unusually empty streets of Athens was for punishment of those responsible for Greece's biggest crisis in decades, in a country where corruption scandals and tax evasion are widespread.

"We should throw all the crooks into the sea, all the people and politicians who are responsible for this crisis," said 58-year old insurance worker Sotiris Oikonomou.

With initial police estimates at around 17,000 protesters, participation in the march seemed to be around the same level as previous anti-austerity protests. Some were resigned to the fact that the government would move ahead with reforms anyhow.

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"I don't expect anything to change with this march. We just fight for our dignity," Oikonomou said.

Greece, whose 240 billion euro economy plunged into recession last year, is preparing more than 20 billion euros ($26.64 billion) in budget cuts over the next two years to secure access to an EU/IMF aid package of up to 120 billion.

 

"Social battle"?

The aid package is aimed at pulling Greece out of a severe debt crisis, which has hit the euro and shaken markets worldwide, and avoid contagion to other euro zone countries.

Euro zone finance ministers are due to discuss the deal on Sunday. French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said she expected agreement could be reached by the end of Sunday.

Rating agencies have warned they could cut the country's rating further if the government lost public support.

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The government has already agreed three sets of austerity measures including tax hikes and pension freeze over the last six months, and many fear the EU/IMF plan will hurt their livelihood further, in a country where one in five lives below the poverty threshold, according to EU data.

"We will not permit the destruction of our rights, we will block their plans," said public sector umbrella union ADEDY. "It's time for our biggest social battle."

Union officials said Greece is asked to slash its deficit by 10 percent of GDP in 2010-2011 by raising VAT tax, scrapping public sector bonuses amounting to two extra months pay, and freezing civil servants' wages in exchange of getting the aid.

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A poll by ALCO pollster for the newspaper Proto Thema showed that 51.3 percent of Greeks would take to the streets if these new measures were agreed.

Polls show that although most Greeks disagree with the austerity plans, Prime Minister George Papandreou is still the country's most popular politician and his party leads in polls.

Agencies

Last Mod: 01 Mayıs 2010, 18:20
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