Thousands of angry Greeks march against austerity

ATHENS Sat May 1, 2010 8:14am EDT

1 of 3. Policemen try to escape a fire from a petrol bomb during riots at a May Day rally in Athens May 1, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Angry protesters set fire to garbage cans and two TV outside broadcast vans in Athens as thousands of Greeks marched through the capital on May Day to protest against austerity measures they say only hurt the poor.

At one rally, police fired two or three rounds of tear gas against 20 protesters trying to reach parliament. The protesters retreated and the march, which was otherwise largely peaceful, continued, a Reuters witness said.

Shops were closed, ships stayed docked and the streets of the capital were unusually empty except for protesters marching toward parliament, meters away from the Finance Ministry where EU and IMF officials have been meeting for days to agree a new set of austerity measures.

"No to the IMF's junta!" protesters chanted, referring to the military dictatorship which ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.

"Hands off our rights! IMF and EU Commission out!," the protesters shouted as they marched to parliament.

A common call among many of those interviewed in the unusually empty streets of Athens was for punishment of those responsible for Greece's biggest crisis in decades, in a country where corruption scandals and tax evasion are widespread.

"We should throw all the crooks into the sea, all the people and politicians who are responsible for this crisis," said 58-year old insurance worker Sotiris Oikonomou.

With initial police estimates at around 17,000 protesters, participation in the march seemed to be around the same level as previous anti-austerity protests. Some were resigned to the fact that the government would move ahead with reforms anyhow.

"I don't expect anything to change with this march. We just fight for our dignity," Oikonomou said.

Greece, whose 240 billion euro economy plunged into recession last year, is preparing more than 20 billion euros ($26.64 billion) in budget cuts over the next two years to secure access to an EU/IMF aid package of up to 120 billion.

"SOCIAL BATTLE?"

The aid package is aimed at pulling Greece out of a severe debt crisis, which has hit the euro and shaken markets worldwide, and avoid contagion to other euro zone countries.

Euro zone finance ministers are due to discuss the deal on Sunday. French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said she expected agreement could be reached by the end of Sunday.

Analysts say social protests may increase after the summer once the impact of the austerity measures kicks in, and investors are worried this may hamper reforms.

Rating agencies have warned they could cut the country's rating further if the government lost public support.

The government has already agreed three sets of austerity measures including tax hikes and pension freeze over the last six months, and many fear the EU/IMF plan will hurt their livelihood further, in a country where one in five lives below the poverty threshold, according to EU data.

"We will not permit the destruction of our rights, we will block their plans," said public sector umbrella union ADEDY. "It's time for our biggest social battle."

Union officials said Greece is asked to slash its deficit by 10 percent of GDP in 2010-2011 by raising VAT tax, scrapping public sector bonuses amounting to two extra months pay, and freezing civil servants' wages in exchange of getting the aid.

A poll by ALCO pollster for the newspaper Proto Thema showed that 51.3 percent of Greeks would take to the streets if these new measures were agreed.

Polls show that although most Greeks disagree with the austerity plans, Prime Minister George Papandreou is still the country's most popular politician and his party leads in polls.

(Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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