Bonds News

Greek taxis halted, customs staff extend strike

* Taxi drivers stage 1-day strike against Greek austerity

* Petrol starts to run out at Athens gas stations

* Strikes seen mainly symbolic, government retains support

ATHENS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Taxi drivers parked their cabs and walked off the job for 24 hours on Friday in the latest protest against the Greek government’s EU-driven austerity programme, which protesters said would hurt only the poor.

Some Athens filling stations began to run out of petrol as another strike by customs officials, which began on Tuesday, was extended until at least mid-next week. Long queues formed at petrol stations that still had fuel.

Traffic in central Athens was disrupted as hundreds of taxi drivers marched behind a vanguard of yellow cabs to the finance ministry chanting “Hands off taxis”.

They were protesting against plans to make them pay more than a low fixed amount in income tax, and give their customers receipts, and a fuel tax rise which has increased their costs.

“Our income is falling. Our families are hurt. We can’t cover our needs with these measures, especially the tax bill,” said 60-year-old taxi owner Yannis Papadopoulos, adding there were 27,000 taxis in Greece.

“We are always the ones who pay. We bear the burden, not the rich.”

The government hiked tax on fuel earlier this month and has announced a series of further measures including making Greeks collect receipts for goods and services, such as taxi rides, in an effort to fight tax evasion.

Customs staff decided to extend their stoppage until Feb. 24, when the two biggest unions representing half of Greece’s 5 million workforce plan a one-day general strike against a public sector wage freeze, tax increases and welfare cuts.

However, protests so far have been largely symbolic and lacked widespread public support. Opinion polls show most Greeks back the government’s austerity measures provided the pain is fairly shared.

The government won this week a first victory over unions protesting against austerity, when farmers abandoned their last blockade empty-handed and tax officials cancelled a 24-hour planned strike. [ID:nLDE61F20Y]

European Union Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said on Friday that Greece deserved the support of the European Union but must take the action necessary to fix its public finances crisis [ID:nLDE61I0UG]

EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn will visit Greece by mid-March, a Commission spokeswoman said on Friday. [ID:nLDE61I13L]

Greece shocked markets when the newly elected socialists revealed in October the 2009 budget deficit would be three times higher than original estimates.

Editing by Paul Taylor