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Greece faces more anti-austerity strikes, protests

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ATHENS — A fresh wave of anti-austerity strikes hit Greece Wednesday as the leaders of the governing coalition struggled to finalize further spending cuts for the coming two years — without which the country will lose its vital rescue loans.

State hospital doctors, school teachers and local authority employees walked off the job Wednesday to protest planned salary and funding cuts under a new €11.5 billion ($14.7 billion) austerity package.

The three unions held a peaceful march to the Finance Ministry in central Athens carrying banners reading "No to the financial collapse of local authorities" and "We will not pay for the crisis, we did not create it." Among the 3,000-strong crowd were several mayors, including the capital's Giorgos Kaminis. Serving and retired military officers were due to hold a march in the afternoon as well, something almost unheard of in Greece.

Debt-crippled Greece has depended since May 2010 on international rescue loans, granted by its European partners and the International Monetary Fund, in return for a deeply unpopular austerity program. In addition to the previous cutbacks, Athens must now decide how to cut a further €11.5 billion as demanded by the country's creditors.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is fighting an uphill struggle on two fronts. As well as getting the support of his center-left coalition partners, he has to get the approval of debt inspectors from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank, the so-called troika.

So far, Samaras hasn't managed to get his coalition partners to sign off on the proposed measures. Samaras will hold a new meeting with the heads of the Socialist PASOK and Democratic Left parties on Wednesday evening.

Earlier, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras held further negotiations with the visiting debt inspectors, who have rejected already part of the government's proposals.

The cutbacks are expected to include further cuts in pensions and public sector salaries. A Democratic Left statement said the troika is also seeking an increase in the retirement age, from 65 to 67, and public sector sackings. The party said it rejects those ideas, as well as proposed reductions in disability benefits, public transport ticket increases and across-the-board pension cuts.

Greek stocks posted strong gains on Wednesday, with the Athens bourse's general index up 5.7 percent in late trading. Banks gained a collective 15.45 percent. The surge followed a ruling by Germany's highest court that rejected calls to block the creation of Europe's €500 billion ($640 billion) rescue fund for indebted governments.

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