ATHENS Angry Greek farmers clashed with riot police in Athens then paraded their tractors and pick-ups outside parliament on Friday, in their first big protest in the capital against pension reform plans after weeks of road blockades.
Officers guarded the entrance to the agricultural ministry and fired tear gas to disperse protesters who hurled tomatoes, eggplants and stones at the building, smashing windows and using shepherd's crooks to repel police during scuffles.
"They won't make us bend!," the protesters shouted.
After the afternoon violence died down, farmers drove their vehicles through crowds outside parliament, blocking the road and shouting slogans against the pensions overhaul which will bring in tax hikes and a tripling of their social security contributions.
Cheered on by supporters waving Greek flags, they honked horns as police in riot gear stood guard. A few demonstrators burnt olive branches while others unfurled a large banner reading: "Take back this monstrous reform plan."
Some farmers pitched tents on Syntagma Square, the scene of violent clashes during anti-austerity protests in recent years.
"We live on loans, this reform will destroy us," said olive oil producer Manolis Niolakis, a 50-year old father of four. "We won't back down, there is no way. If we do, we'll starve."
Citizen Protection Minister Nikos Toskas criticised the violence, telling state TV: "This is not how social battles should be fought. This is not the right way of expression."
The pension reform has also angered lawyers and doctors and members of other professions.
The government says the changes are necessary to ensure future pensions for the farmers, whose benefits have so far been almost completely subsidised by the debt-ridden state.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, elected last year promising to end austerity but then forced to accept a third bailout in July, is struggling to conclude a bailout review with lenders and convince angry Greeks that after six years of belt-tightening were worth it.
His task is not made any easier by the fact that his government has only a tiny majority in parliament.
Earlier this week, Tsipras said he was willing to hold talks with the farmers on possibly amending the pension reform bill to lessen the pain, but they rebuffed his overtures.
The EU and the International Monetary Fund are not expected to back down on their demands that Athens cut pension spending by 1 percent of gross domestic product this year. The IMF said Greece will need to take extra measures worth about 9 billion euros to meet its fiscal targets by 2018.
"We cannot see how Greece can do so without major savings on pensions," said IMF's director for Europe, Poul Thomsen.
After a meeting of euro zone finance ministers in Brussels, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that pension reforms remained a major sticking point in talks with Athens.
The Greek economy contracted in the last three months of 2015 as fiscal austerity and capital controls continued to weigh on investment and consumer spending.
(Additional reporting by Lefteris Karagiannopoulos and George Georgiopoulos in Athens, Tom Koerkemeier in Brussels; Writing by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Karolina Tagaris and Andrew Heavens)