Acropolis stormed as Greek austerity anger grows

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Demonstrators stormed the Athens Acropolis on Tuesday and thousands of civil servants launched a walkout ahead of a general strike against unprecedented austerity spending cuts.

With the government demanding painful "sacrifices" after the country secured a 110 billion euro (145 billion dollar) debt bailout, Labour Minister Andreas Loverdos said: "We have only one aim, to save Greece, and we are not going to budge."

About 200 Communist protesters broke into the ancient Acropolis citadel overlooking the capital at dawn, draping a giant banner reading "Peoples of Europe Rise Up" and chanting slogans against the draconian spending cuts.

"We want to send a message to the farthest reaches of Greece and Europe," Communist lawmaker Nikos Papaconstantinou told Flash Radio.

"Similar measures that eliminate social security are taken across Europe. But popular anger will rattle imperialist organisations," he said.

Protesters did not prevent visitors from getting into the monument, one of Europe's most visited tourist attractions, the lawmaker added.

The PAME communist union mobilised less than a thousand demonstrators who massed in front of the parliament bearing banners reading "We will not give a penny for the crisis."

In the first major test of the government's resolve to push through the austerity cuts, unions have called a nationwide general strike with street demonstrations for Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants began a two-day strike as the government rushed through parliament a new wave of tax hikes and wage cuts to clinch the bailout loan from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

At least several hundred members, mostly public school teachers, of the 375,000-strong Adedy civil servants union also demonstrated in the centre of Athens.

"The government is trying to divide the Greek people with lies and giving everything to employers," said Ilias Vrettakos, a senior member of the union, in a speech before the demonstrations got under way.

The public sector walkout paralysed ministries and municipal offices while hospitals were operating on emergency staff.

Civil aviation staff also joined the two-day mobilisation, grounding domestic flights on Tuesday and all flights on Wednesday.

Late Monday, unemployed teachers interrupted the state broadcaster's evening news show to demand jobs. They read a statement demanding job protection and calling on the IMF pull out of Greece.

The government aims to cut 30 billion euros from the budget over three years by scrapping annual bonuses for public sector workers and retirees, requiring longer pension contributions and raising sales tax among other measures.

Eager to keep the Greece debt crisis from spreading to other countries, the EU and IMF agreed the unprecedented rescue package at the weekend in exchange for a new wave austerity cuts and tax hikes.

Germany, which had been highly reluctant to extend taxpayer cash to Greece, warned the Greek government on Tuesday that it must adhere rigidly to its austerity plan or loans would be halted.

"Every three months, Greece's government must give a comprehensive report to the European Commission and the IMF about how it is implementing its plan," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Rheinische Post daily.

"If there are any violations, payments will be stopped. Then Athens will once again be threatened with bankruptcy," he added.

Austrian Finance Minister Josef Proell warned Athens that Europe was losing patience with Greece, urging the government to make protestors understand that there was no alternative to austerity cuts.

"Regarding the protests in Greece, I, along with the rest of Europe, am near the end of my tether," Proell said, insisting that loans "will be dished out step by step, when (austerity) measures have been carried out."

The government hopes to fast-track the austerity plans through parliament, tabling bills on Monday and Tuesday so that a vote can be held on by the end of the week.

© 2010 AFP

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