* Protest is first of its kind against new austerity package
* EU/IMF inspectors are in Greece to review reform progress
By John Kolesidis and Vassilis Triandafyllou
THESSALONIKI, Greece, Sept 8 Thousands of Greeks
marched at an annual fair in Greece's second-biggest city on
Saturday to protest against a new round of wage and pension cuts
demanded by international lenders in exchange for aid to stave
The demonstration by about 15,000 trade unionists and
leftists was the first major protest against a nearly
12-billion-euro austerity package being readied by Prime
Minister Antonis Samaras to appease EU and IMF inspectors who
arrived in Athens on Friday to review Greece's reform progress.
A few protesters burned European Union flags while others
threw watermelons and peaches in support of struggling farmers,
but the largely peaceful protests otherwise passed off without
incident as 3,500 policemen looked on.
Greece is struggling through its worst post-war economic
crisis that has left nearly one in four jobless, pushed up
poverty levels and shuttered thousands of businesses.
In a break with tradition, Samaras made only a brief
appearance to inaugurate the event and to defend the planned
cuts instead of making the customary annual economic policy
speech delivered by his predecessors.
"We are trying to minimise the pain from the cuts as much as
possible but we have to make the cuts, because there is no other
way," Samaras told politicians and local officials.
"I am telling you the truth, there is no other way."
Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, head of the radical
leftist SYRIZA party that opposes Greece's foreign bailout,
criticised Samaras for the unusually low-key appearance at the
"The prime minister came and left like a thief - perhaps he
is ashamed," said Tsipras, who took part in the rallies.
Samaras opposed Greece's first bailout in 2010 but since
taking power in June he has promised to push through another
round of belt-tightening that a fatigued Greek public feels it
cannot take anymore.
Samaras and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, a respected
economist, have won cautious praise from European counterparts
for refusing to back down on the cuts but face growing hostility
at home as Greece's economic slump deepens.
The government, which is hoping to win two more years to
implement the cuts - which are slated for 2013 and 2014 - says
Greece's economy will contract by more than 7 percent this year.
A string of protests are expected in the coming days as the
so-called troika of EU, International Monetary Fund and European
Central Bank officials conclude a review that will determine
whether Greece gets the next tranche of aid under its latest
bailout and avoids a messy default.