Greek police fire tear gas at protesting cabbies

September 10, 2011 - 11:15 AM
Greece Financial Crisis

An old man sits on a bench holding the official communist party newspaper during an anti-austerity protest in Athens Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. At least seven separate marches have been called for Saturday afternoon in Greece's second-largest city of Thessaloniki, ahead of Prime Minister George Papandreou's annual speech on the economy. (AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis)

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Clashes have broken out at an anti-austerity march in Greece, with riot police firing tear gas to disperse protesters armed with flare guns, stones and sticks.

No injuries or arrests were immediately reported from Saturday's clashes in Greece's second-largest city of Thessaloniki. A series of unions and groups are holding marches there before a speech on the economy by Greece's prime minister.

George Papandreou's government has imposed painful austerity measures — cutting pensions and salaries while raising taxes and retirement ages — to secure vital international rescue loans worth euro219 billion ($302.6 billion). But Greece's efforts to economize while reviving a fast-contracting economy amid record unemployment have faltered, sparking new market woes.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Thousands of angry Greeks, from labor unions tired of prolonged belt-tightening to local soccer fans, gathered in the country's second-largest city for a series of protests before an annual speech on the economy by the prime minister.

About 5,000 police were deployed Saturday in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, for fear of a repetition of the riots that have marred many of the protests held over the past 20 months of austerity.

At least seven separate marches have been called. Organizers include the barely-solvent country's two biggest labor unions, students, anarchists, taxi drivers — even fans of the Iraklis soccer club.

About 2,000 members of a Communist union held a peaceful protest in Athens early Saturday. On Friday, about 100 protesters heckled Prime Minister George Papandreou during a visit to Thessaloniki's town hall, and police officers in uniform held a peaceful march.

The Socialist government has imposed painful austerity measures — cutting pensions and salaries while raising taxes and retirement ages — to secure vital international rescue loans worth euro219 billion ($302.6 billion). But its efforts to economize while reviving a fast-contracting economy amid record unemployment have faltered, sparking new market distress, and on Friday Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos was forced to deny rumors of impending bankruptcy over the weekend.

Venizelos insisted Saturday that the country could still pull through, although the proof could come in the immediate future.

"Whoever believes that Greece has been broken or has no hope is clearly out of touch with reality," he said. "The two coming months are crucial for the very existence of our country, these are two months whose every day counts as a year in terms of effort."

By the end of October, Greece has to conclude talks on a complex bond swap deal under which private holders of its debt — mostly banks and pension funds — will take a loss on their holdings in return for new, more secure bonds.

It must also persuade the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which are providing the bailout loans, that it is making sufficient progress with fiscal discipline, reforms and privatizations. If Athens fails in that, the country will not receive the next euro8 billion ($11 billion) batch of its loans, and go bankrupt in weeks.

"The clearest message Greece is sending at this point ... is that we are absolutely determined, without taking any momentary political cost into account, to fully meet our obligations to our partners," Venizelos insisted.

But he warned that the economy, in its third year of recession, is shrinking at a faster than expected pace, further hampering ambitious efforts to cut the budget deficit to 7.5 percent of gross domestic product this year.

"The forecast in May was a 3.8 percent contraction, and we are currently above 5 percent," he said.