Protests, EU demands add pressure on Greece's Tsipras

By DEREK GATOPOULOS - Associated Press 05 February 2016, 12:00AM

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Tens of thousands joined anti-government protests across Greece Thursday as the country was crippled by a general strike against painful pension reforms demanded by bailout lenders.

In Athens, police said some 40,000 people joined rallies that ended with a brief outbreak of violence when anarchist protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police outside Parliament.

The general strike presented the most widespread opposition to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government so far, shutting down everything from schools to funeral homes, and uniting a disparate group of professions, including artists, taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors, vets, engineers and seamen.

Coffee shop owners closed their stores in protest in the central city of Larissa, while farmers maintained highway blockades and drove tractors through the center of Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki.

Protests occurred in at least a dozen cities, amid mounting union anger at Tsipras' left-wing government which has promised to spare pensioners further cuts in the short term but hike income contributions to bolster the ailing system.

Despite the pledge, Athens retiree Yannis Kouvalakis said he felt let down by Tsipras' year-old government.

"They said they'd help pensioners and the unemployed and look what happened: Things got worse," he said. "They're fooling us."

The pension overhaul is part of Greece's a latest 80 billion euro ($89 billion) international bailout and is currently being negotiated in Athens between the government and inspectors from Eurozone lenders and the International Monetary Fund.

Adding pressure on Tsipras, a report released by the European Commission Thursday warned that pension reforms and new tax hikes would still not be enough to meet bailout targets.

"Further measures will be needed in 2016 and 2017 in order to reach the program's primary (budget) surplus targets," it said, predicting that Greece will slip back into mild recession this year and that the national debt will climb to 185 percent of gross domestic product.

The disruption from the strike was wide-ranging. Schools and many private businesses were closed while transport, including flights and ferry services, faced delays and cancellation. The strike also stopped the flow of thousands of migrants and refugees travelling from the Greek islands where they make landfall.

State-run hospitals ran on emergency staff, while farmers maintained their blockades of highways that forced motorists into lengthy detours.

Police officers are planning a demonstration in central Athens Friday.

By DEREK GATOPOULOS - Associated Press 05 February 2016, 12:00AM
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