Thousands of Greek farmers shut borders in tenth day of protest

Thousands of Greek farmers blocked highways and shut border crossings on Wednesday in a tenth day of protests over low prices.

Thousands of Greek farmers shut borders in tenth day of protest

Thousands of Greek farmers blocked highways and shut border crossings on Wednesday in a tenth day of protests over low prices, while a stoppage by aviation officials disrupted international flights.

Following the worst riots in decades in December, which were fuelled by the economic downturn, the protests were another blow to a fragile conservative government hanging by a one-seat majority in parliament.

More than 60 roadblocks by farmers disrupted traffic across Greece, cutting the main highway from Athens to the second city of Thessaloniki and closing border crossings with Bulgaria, leaving queues of vehicles several miles (km) long.

Farmers, demanding higher subsidies and tax rebates to compensate for the economic slump, have rejected a 500 million euro package from the government, despite appeals from Greek business leaders and complaints from the Bulgarian government.

"This package does not cure our suffering, it's like giving us an aspirin," said grain farmer Pavlos Arabatzis at the remote Promachonas crossing with Bulgaria. "These measures and the stance of the Agriculture Ministry only enrages farmers more."

Angry truck drivers, most of them from Romania and Bulgaria, honked their horns or sat shivering in the rain at the misty crossing. Witnesses said Bulgarian farmers had crossed over late on Tuesday to show solidarity with their Greek counterparts.

Greek farmers complain the global economic slump has slashed agricultural prices by up to 50 percent, while the rise in fuel prices last year pushed their costs up by one-third. They say the government offer is false, and most of the money was already earmarked for existing subsidies.

Economy slows

Ministers say the economic slump leaves them no room to offer more, as falling tax revenues widen the deficit. The European Commission predicts Greece's economic growth will tumble to 0.2 percent this year -- its lowest level in 16 years.

"The government has made every effort to accomodate the farmers' demands," government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said. "We've done the best possible. Now it's up to the farmers to respond ... There's no sense in keeping the roads closed."

Police sources said farmers had lifted a couple of their roadblocks on Wednesday, reopening the main road linking the Peloponnese peninsula -- home to a tenth of Greece's 11 million people -- with the mainland. Greece's main health fund had appealed to farmers to allow medicine through.

Greece's trade with Bulgaria -- which is mainly in non-agricultural products like clothes, plastic and machinery -- has been severely hit by the protests, business leaders say.

The government in Sofia has called on the European Commission to force Greece to reopen the roads to Bulgarian trucks, and urged compensation for spoiled goods.

A three-hour stoppage on Wednesday by the ADEDY public sector workers federation -- in protest at government privatisations, pension and tax reforms -- forced state-owned Olympic Airlines [OLY.UL] to cancel at least 16 flights.

A dozen more domestic and international flights were scratched due to bad weather conditions. Other companies also cancelled flights due to the labour action, officials said.

Air traffic controllers, who announced four three-hour stoppages for Wednesday, cancelled the action at the last minute, saying airlines had not had time to warn passengers.

Travel disruptions were expected to spread to cities later in the day as the ADEDY stoppage hits bus and metro services.

Last Mod: 28 Ocak 2009, 16:42
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