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Greeks rally against austerity plan

Sep 26 2012 12:12 AFP

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Athens - Greece faced a paralysing general strike on Wednesday as unions take to the streets to protest at a new round of sweeping austerity cuts to be brought in next month to unlock vital EU-IMF loans.

As 5 000 police deployed around the capital, hundreds of people began to gather for separate demonstrations called by left-wing and Communist unions.

The strike action is expected to bring the country to a standstill, disrupting flights, confining ferries to port, halting train services and shutting down the Greek public sector, including museums.

Traders have also been called to close their businesses for the day but with a deepening recession to consider, many shop owners opted to remain open.

"It's mostly civil servants who are on strike," Irene, a woman in her 30s who runs a printing shop, told AFP. "My staffers may arrive late but they won't strike, it's never helped us any."

It is the third general strike this year but the first to test the resolve of the coalition government that took over in June to keep the recession-mired country in the eurozone as it rushes to finalise a package of some €11.5bn in extra cuts.

Another €2bn must be raised from taxes under the austerity measures due to be introduced to parliament in early October by the three-party coalition headed by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

The new cuts will affect thousands of civil servants who have already suffered salary reductions of up to 40% over the last two years.

The age of retirement is also expected to be raised from 65 to 67, just two years after a previous hike.

The austerity package is designed to unblock access to €31.5bn in loans, part of Greece's massive rescue package from the so-called troika of creditors - the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank.

Athens needs the money to pay state salaries and pensions, recapitalise Greek banks hit by a state debt rollover and repay over €6bn owed to private contractors.

But even this latest round of austerity measures might not be enough to get Greece's troubled rescue and reform operation back on the rails.

Unions say that cutbacks to trim the country's soaring deficit have caused record unemployment and a deepening recession now in its fifth year.

"Salaries, pensions and benefits have been cut again and again for 2.5 years and the 'monster' of the debt and deficits remains invincible, constantly demanding new sacrifices," the main unions GSEE and Adedy said in a statement.

"S0S - save the country, but above all its people," they said in posters strung from lamp-posts across the capital.

Cutbacks have caused mounting anger in other struggling economies in the eurozone's southern flank.

Over 100 000 people protested in Portugal earlier this month, and on Tuesday more than 60 people were injured in Madrid in clashes near parliament.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde had warned on Tuesday that delays in implementing Greece's bailout programme, including privatisations, had expanded the country's financing shortfall.

"As a result of the major delay in privatisation... and the limited revenue collection, there's a financing gap, especially if factoring in more time," Lagarde told an audience at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"We don't only need €11.5bn of cuts; we need a series of cuts and additional revenues in order to fill in the fiscal gap," she said.

But on Tuesday Greece's deputy finance minister Christos Staikouras said that Greek bonds held by the ECB could be rolled over to bridge the gap caused by slippage on fiscal targets and state asset sales.

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