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Greek farmers block borders

PROMACHONAS, Greece (Reuters) - Greek farmers shut border crossings and blocked roads for a tenth day on Wednesday while aviation officials disrupted international flights, piling pressure on a government struggling to face the economic crisis.

A driver sits inside his truck in a road blockade by farmers near the Promahonas border crossing to Bulgaria in northern Greece January 26, 2009. REUTERS/Grigoris Siamidis

In Athens, hundreds of public sector employees marched to the Finance Ministry to protest at pension and healthcare reforms and a small breakaway group of anarchists clashed with police before vandalising a bank and businesses. In some areas, however, there were signs of roadblocks being lifted.

The protests deal a blow to a fragile government still reeling from the worst riots in decades in December, which fed on anger at its right-wing reforms and political scandals.

The union protests have revived speculation the ruling New Democracy party -- which has a one-seat majority in parliament -- could become the latest victim of Europeans’ anger at the global crisis. Iceland’s Prime Minister Geir Haarde resigned on Monday after a wave of street protests toppled his coalition.

Around 60 roadblocks by farmers disrupted traffic across Greece, cutting the main highway from Athens to the second city of Thessaloniki and closing border crossings with Bulgaria, leaving queues of vehicles several miles (kilometres) long.

Farmers, demanding higher subsidies and tax rebates to compensate for the economic slump, have rejected a 500 million euro (463 million pound) package from the government, despite appeals from Greek business leaders and complaints from the Bulgarian government.

“This package does not cure our suffering, it’s like giving us an aspirin,” said grain farmer Pavlos Arabatzis at the remote Promachonas crossing with Bulgaria. “These measures and the stance of the Agriculture Ministry only enrages farmers more.”

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Angry truck drivers, most of them from Romania and Bulgaria, honked their horns or sat shivering in the rain at the misty crossing. Witnesses said Bulgarian farmers had crossed over late on Tuesday to show solidarity with their Greek counterparts.

The Athens chamber of manufacturing industries appealed for an end to the roadblocks which it said were causing shortages of raw materials and tradable goods. But farmers say the government package was mostly previously announced subsidies and would not compensate them for a 50 percent fall in commodities prices.

ECONOMY SLOWS

A three-hour stoppage on Wednesday by the ADEDY public sector workers federation -- in protest at privatisations and pension reforms -- grounded at least 16 flights operated by state-owned Olympic Airlines, which is being sold.

Other companies also cancelled flights due to the labour action, officials said. Travel disruptions spread to cities as the ADEDY stoppage hit bus and metro services.

However, Greek police said farmers had begun to lift some roadblocks, reopening a highway linking the Peloponnese peninsula -- home to a tenth of Greece’s 11 million people -- with the mainland. Greece’s main health fund had appealed to farmers to allow vital medicines through the route.

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“People are tired, they see their campaign failing, they feel desperate and conditions are difficult; participating in this action means lower income,” said George Goniotakis, head of the Federation of Greek Farmers Associations.

Ministers say the economic slump leaves no room to offer more, as falling tax revenues widen an already-large budget deficit. Brussels predicts Greece’s economic growth will tumble to 0.2 percent this year -- its lowest level in 16 years.

“Farmers are showing responsibility, logic and a patriotic attitude to the problems of our country,” said Agriculture Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis, citing the removal of blockades.

The government in Sofia has called on the European Commission to force Greece to reopen the roads to Bulgarian trucks, and urged compensation for spoiled goods.

Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and George Hatzidakis, writing by Daniel Flynn

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