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Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Greece's PM vows to slash huge government deficit

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Protesters take to the streets in Athens

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has said he will "take any necessary measures" to reduce Greece's deficit.

His comments came as thousands of Greeks demonstrated against cost-cutting measures during a national public sector strike.

Flights have been grounded, many schools are closed and hospitals are operating an emergency-only service.

EU leaders will discuss Greece's difficulties on Thursday amid concern the crisis could threaten the euro.

AT THE SCENE
Jonny Dymond
By Jonny Dymond, BBC News, Athens

Under leaden skies a long line of strikers trudged, umbrellas in hand, through Syntagma Square on Wednesday morning.

Teachers, nurses, doctors, dock workers, civil servants and airport staff walked with banners protesting at the Greek government's plans to rein in the country's deficit.

There is a fair amount of chanting, but on this grey day, there is not much enthusiasm about.

The seriousness of Greece's situation seems to have infected even those agitating against the government's proposed solution.

Mr Papandreou, whose socialist government has said it will freeze public sector pay, raise taxes and change the pension system, insisted that the proposals would be fully implemented.

"The stability programme will be implemented in every measure," he said on Wednesday while in Paris for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr Papandreou has already faced down a three-week protest by farmers demanding higher government subsidies.

Public anger

Despite heavy rain, there have been rallies across Greece throughout the day, with thousands of striking workers and pensioners gathering in the capital, Athens.

Several thousand people were also reported to have protested in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki.

The rallies have been mainly peaceful, but in one incident police fired tear gas at rubbish collectors who tried to drive through a police cordon.

It's a war against workers and we will answer with war
Union member Christos Katsiotis

Some demonstrators threw stones at the police but the trouble was quickly defused.

The unions regard the austerity programme as a declaration of war against the working and middle classes, the BBC's Malcolm Brabant reports from the capital.

He says their resolve is strengthened by their belief that this crisis has been engineered by external forces, such as international speculators and European central bankers.

"It's a war against workers and we will answer with war, with constant struggles until this policy is overturned," said Christos Katsiotis, a union member affiliated to the Communist Party, at the Athens rally.

Greek PM George Papandreou, Feb 10 2010
Mr Papandreou has proposed a raft of cost-cutting measures

Others in the capital either see the cuts as necessary or argue that the strike is politically motivated.

"We have to implement the austerity measures, or the country will not be able to get out of this crisis," said Katerina, a private sector employee. "We have to pay for the mistakes of the past."

On Tuesday, Mr Papandreou's government announced that it intended to raise the average retirement age from 61 to 63 by 2015 in a bid to save the cash-strapped pensions system.

The move comes on top of other planned austerity measures, including a public sector salary freeze and a rise in petrol prices, that were announced last week.

Dodging tax

Further government measures include the non-replacement of departing civil servants, and tax collectors recovering billions of euros lost to tax evasion.

Public sector workers will not be hit as hard as they have been in the Irish Republic, but they complain that some of the lowest-paid will suffer while the rich dodge tax with impunity, says BBC Europe correspondent Jonny Dymond.

Financial markets around the world and politicians from across Europe will be watching the situation carefully, he reports from Athens.

Greece's deficit is, at 12.7%, more than four times higher than eurozone rules allow. Its debt is about 300bn euros ($419bn; £259bn).

The markets remain sceptical that Greece will be able to pay its debts, and many investors believe the country will have to be bailed out.

The uncertainty has recently buffeted the euro and the problems have extended to Spain and Portugal, which are also struggling with their deficits.

The possibility of Greece or one of the other stricken countries being unable to pay its debts - and either needing an EU bailout or having to abandon the euro - has been called the biggest threat yet to the single currency.

Ahead of the talks between EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday, some business media reported that Germany was preparing to lead a possible bail-out, supported by France and other eurozone members.



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