- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ATHENS (AP) — Angry Greeks took to the streets Tuesday and unfurled banners at the ancient Acropolis, the country’s most famous monument, to protest harsh new austerity measures as strikes began across the country.

Greece’s cash-strapped government on Sunday announced sweeping spending cuts worth 30 billion euros ($40 billion) through 2012 in order to secure a vital rescue package of loans from the International Monetary Fund and the other 15 European Union countries that use the euro.

About 4,000 teachers and students carried black flags and held banners reading, “Send the bill to those responsible,” as they marched to Parliament to protest the cuts.

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Scuffles broke out as they approached the Parliament building, with demonstrators throwing stones at riot police, who responded with small bursts of pepper spray to keep the crowd back.

Earlier, about 100 protesters from the Greek Communist Party cut through locks on the gates of the Acropolis shortly after dawn and hung banners in Greek and English reading, “Peoples of Europe — Rise Up.”

Police did not intervene as protesters carrying red flags stood beside the ancient Parthenon, next to the two large banners. The demonstrators did not attempt to prevent tourists from visiting the site.

“This is a message to the people of Europe,” said Communist Party official Panagiotis Papageorgopoulos, who was among the protesters. “People have the same problems everywhere. We can take control of our fate with organized protests so that our lives are not run by the EU and the IMF.”

The new measures, which are being submitted in a draft bill to Parliament on Tuesday and are to be voted on by the end of the week, will result in deeper cuts in pensions and public servants’ pay, and a new increase in consumer taxes.

Public servants, including state schoolteachers and hospital workers, began a 48-hour strike Tuesday.

The strike led to several domestic flights by Greece’s Olympic Air and Aegean Airlines being canceled, while all flights to and from the country were to be grounded for 24 hours Wednesday as air traffic controllers join in a nationwide general strike.

Wednesday’s strike is expected to shut down services across the country. Public transport will halt in the morning and evening, government offices will remain closed throughout the day, and state hospitals will function with emergency staff.

The Athens Traders Association said it was recommending that stores in the capital remain open during the strike but shut down during demonstrations in the center as a show of solidarity for the strikers.

About 200 to 300 pensioners held their own demonstration, marching through central Athens to protest pension cuts and consumer tax increases, chanting, “Stealing our pensions is not the answer.”

“We won’t let them steal our livelihoods. They are cheating us,” said Dimos Koumbouris, head of a pensioners union. “Tomorrow everything will close — factories, shops, everything. They will hear our voice very clearly.”

Union leaders say the cuts target low-income Greeks.

“There are other things the (government) can do before taking money from a pensioner who earns 500 (euros, or $660) a month,” Spyros Papaspyros, leader of the public servants union ADEDY, told private Mega television.

Late Monday, protesting schoolteachers forced their way into Greece’s state television building and disrupted programming.

With debts of 300 billion euros ($391 billion) and a budget deficit of 13.6 percent of gross domestic product, Greece has been struggling to pull its finances in order and was less than three weeks away from default when the eurozone finance ministers agreed on Sunday to activate a three-year, 110 billion euro ($143 billion) rescue from eurozone countries and the IMF. Athens needs to see the first installment of funds before May 19, when it has 8.5 billion euros ($11.1 billion) worth of 10-year bonds maturing.

On Tuesday morning, France’s lower house of parliament adopted a budget amendment allowing the government to release French funds for Greece’s bailout. The text must still go before the Senate, its final step in parliament. France has committed to providing up to 16.8 billion euros ($21.9 billion) in its share of the three-year plan.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde urged lawmakers to adopt the amendment, calling it a “moral imperative” and saying that providing funds for Greece would be a way of “stabilizing the euro.”

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