BBC News | Friday, 30 April 2010 | 10:17 GMT
Protesters in Athens clashed with police as a group tried to force its way into the Greek finance ministry. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd as the unrest flared over austerity measures that may be taken in return for a massive bailout deal. The European Union (EU) has said it is close to approving the details of an emergency plan to help tackle Greece’s crippling debt. EU commission Chief Jose Manuel Barroso said "rapid progress" was being made. "I’m confident that the talks will be concluded soon, meaning in the next days," Mr Barroso told a news conference following the clashes. "We believe that these solutions will be conducive to our actions and will prevent further possible effects of the contagion." Officials from the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank are in Athens to negotiate the bailout. The Greek government says it needs a deal by 19 May to avoid a devastating debt default.
‘Measures of destruction’
Police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators, after some tried to break through a police cordon guarding the Greek finance ministry. The outbreaks came after Greece began talks over extra budget cuts as conditions for the bailout loans. These cuts would be in addition to an already mooted austerity drive aimed at reducing the nation’s public deficit, which is more than four times bigger than the EU limit. Union officials say the IMF wants Athens to raise sales taxes, scrap bonuses amounting to two extra months of pay in the public sector and accept a three-year pay freeze. The union officials also claim that by next year, the IMF and the EU want Greece to shed 10 percentage points from the public deficit that reached 13.6% of output in 2009. In addition, they say Athens has been asked to get rid of 13th and 14th month bonuses for public sector workers and pensioners.
"Have you understood that these measures that are being recommended to you are measures of destruction?" the head of the Left Coalition Syriza, a small left-wing party, Alexis Tsipras, told Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and fellow lawmakers. "There is no other choice, ask for the verdict of the Greek people, call a referendum," he added. In the face of mounting opposition to the budget cuts, Mr Papandreou insisted that the poor must not suffer disproportionately because of the austerity drive. "We are holding tough negotiations to protect what we can for the weak and the middle class in our country," he said. He said spending on healthcare would continue, but that corruption in the sector would be tackled.
Negotiations about the terms of the Greek loan come as the country prepares for annual 1 May celebrations, with three demonstrations expected against the measures. Meanwhile, there were also reports of further clashes outside the parliament building in Athens on Thursday night. The latest protests followed a meeting between Prime Minister George Papandreou and trade union leaders, who reacted angrily to his planned austerity measures. "We got a flavour of a very harsh package of measures, measures that will lead to recession," Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the powerful GSEE umbrella trade union, was quoted by AP news agency as saying. The unions have now called a general strike for 5 May. The BBC’s Gavin Hewitt in Athens says the mood is increasingly against any bailout and the Greek prime minister has said the country is in a battle for survival.