Thousands in general strike over Greece austerity plans

Tens of thousands of strikers marched through Athens to protest against austerity plans.

 Thousands in general strike over Greece austerity plans

Tens of thousands of strikers marched through Athens on Wednesday to protest against austerity plans aimed at wrenching Greece out of a debt crisis that has shaken the euro zone.

The Socialist government meanwhile hit back at European criticism of Greece's fiscal management, accusing European Union partners of double standards and poor leadership.

The 24-hour general strike grounded flights and disrupted services but stopped short of bringing Greece to a standstill. Scuffles broke out on the fringe of the protest, with police firing teargas to disperse groups of stone-throwing youths.

"No sacrifices, the rich should pay for the crisis," demonstrators chanted as more than 20,000 marched on parliament in the protest.

Schools, government offices and courthouses were all closed while there was also major disruption to public transport, banks, hospitals and state-owned companies.

All emergency flights to and from Greece were grounded, ships stayed tied up in dock, and ministries, schools and monuments such as the Athens Acropolis remained shut. Street protests failed to attract more than the usual numbers.

Many of the employees who stayed away from work joined the demonstrations against the Socialist government which is trying to raise revenue through new taxes, and to save money through public sector benefit cuts and hiring freezes.

Police said around 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Athens for a protest called by the country's two biggest unions while several thousand Communist supporters took part in a separate protest. A further 7,000 staged a protest in the second city of Thessaloniki, the police said.

Some protesters carried signs calling on the authorities to "tax the rich" instead and noted that the strike was also targeting "speculators" after a run against Greek bonds that has sharply pushed up the country's borrowing costs.

Others marched with banners criticising the "plutocracy".

Athens' metro and bus lines did run a skeleton service to allow strikers to get to the street demonstrations.

The general strike is the first to hit the Socialists after their election in October on an economy salvation ticket.

"Germany ill-placed to criticise Athens"

In a sign of persistent market jitters, Greece's borrowing costs rose on Wednesday after Czech Finance Minister Eduard Janota said Athens would find it impossible to slash its budget deficit as fast as promised.

Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos said Italy, France and Belgium had used the same techniques as Greece to mask their true deficits to qualify for the euro zone.

"You simply put some amounts of money in the next year ... it is what everybody did and Greece did it to a lesser extent than Italy for example," Pangalos told BBC World Service radio.

He said Germany was ill-placed to criticise Athens given its behaviour during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War Two, including the looting of central bank gold reserves.

The public and private sector unions, which together represent half of Greece's workforce of 5 million, want the government to scrap plans to freeze public wage, hike taxes and increase the retirement age.

"Today, Europe's eyes are turned on us," said Yannis Panagopoulos, head of the private sector union GSEE.

"We ask the government not to give in to the desires of the markets, to set people's needs as a priority and adopt a mix of economic and social policies that won't lead to recession but to jobs," he told the rally.

Fitch Ratings on Tuesday downgraded the ratings of Greece's four largest banks, expecting fiscal tightening to weigh on the economy and loan demand, hurting profits.

The strike coincided with a visit by EU officials assessing whether Greece is on track to cut its double-digit deficit. Greece's debt crisis has shaken the euro and sent peripheral bond and credit default swaps markets reeling.

"The team of inspectors coming from the Commission, the ECB and the IMF ... will get a taste of the dynamic reaction of the Greek workers to the huge pressures from Brussels," centre-left Eleftherotypia newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said on Tuesday the cabinet may decide on more measures to cut the deficit after talks with the visiting EU officials.

Agencies

Last Mod: 24 Şubat 2010, 17:05
Add Comment