Now thousands march in Athens, clash with police

Athens, Feb 23 (DPA) Greek police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators Wednesday as thousands marched through Athens to protest against austerity measures imposed by the government, which is struggling to contain the country’s budget-deficit crisis.

Police fired teargas to disperse crowds of demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails, stones and bottles in various parts of the capital as thousands walked off the job in a 24-hour nationwide strike.

The strike, called by the country’s biggest public and private sector unions, saw government offices, schools and public transport disrupted while hospitals and ambulance services operated with emergency staff.

Shops pulled down their shutters and banks, pharmacies and museums remained closed and lawyers and engineers also walked off the job.

‘I am demonstrating because the government has to fix this mess that it has gotten into – there are politicians which have robbed the country blind yet no one has been brought to justice,’ said Doria Tsirigoti, who closed down her hair salon for the day in protest.

Only emergency flights are to be allowed between 1000 and 1400 GMT and ships will remain anchored at ports across the country, paralysing the country’s vital sea transport system as a show of support for those protesting against the government’s austerity measures.

A news blackout was in effect as journalists from state and private television and radio joined the walkout.

Public sector union ADEDY and private sector union GSEE together represent about 2.5 million workers, half of Greece’s workforce.

Unions have held months of strikes and demonstrations since the government last year unveiled the cost-saving measures.

The reforms are part of a deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a 110-billion-euro (about $140 billion) bailout package which saved Greece from bankruptcy.

The Greek government has already cut back salaries and pensions to slash a budget deficit that stood at 15.4 percent of gross domestic product in late 2009 by six percentage points by the end of 2010.

The EU/IMF approved a fresh 15-billion-euro tranche of aid earlier this month, but set new, tougher targets for privatisation and called for more reforms.

During a meeting with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in Berlin Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the deadline could be extended for Greece to repay its international loans.

‘This is one issue within the overall package lying on the table,’ Merkel said in relation to the permanent euro stability pact being drawn up at present by the seventeen eurozone member states.

The chancellor praised the ‘painful’ Greek reform course undertaken in the year since Papandreou last visited Berlin. At the time, Germany hesitated over agreeing to European-led bailout measures during the Greek debt crisis.

Papandreou pledged that his country would press forward with reform in sectors including education, health care and a greater crackdown on tax evasion.

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