PM steps into row with cabbies

Prime Minister George Papandreou made his first public attempt Thursday to defuse the government?s dispute with taxi drivers, which is threatening to become an embarrassing distraction for PASOK.

Speaking to MPs from his ruling party, Papandreou said the government was committed to opening up so-called closed professions but that it would listen to what those affected by the changes have to say.

?The liberalization of the closed professions will happen with rules and dialogue,? he said. He added that the government was prepared to listen to any suggestions the cabbies may have.

This was a much more conciliatory line than the one taken by Transport Minister Yiannis Ragousis in recent weeks. Ragousis announced a total liberalization of taxis just weeks after his predecessor, Dimitris Reppas, had announced a deregulation plan that would have placed a limit on the number of taxi licenses that would be issued. Ragousis has since held fruitless talks with the cabbies, who have protested by closing access to roads, ports and airports.

On Thursday, about 2,000 taxi drivers demonstrated at the port of Piraeus, preventing coaches carrying cruise passengers from leaving for tours of Athens. Some drivers also threw oil on the road in what they said was an attempt to ensure that they were not pursued by motorcycle-riding policemen.

Since cabbies started their protests almost two weeks ago, more than 5,500 have been charged with offenses by authorities.

Papandreou called on taxi drivers to tone down their protests and suggested that New Democracy was encouraging them to cause as much trouble as possible for the government. Government spokesman Ilias Mossialos later referred to Thymios Liberopoulos, the head of the taxi drivers? union (SATA), as a ?close associate? of ND leader Antonis Samaras.

Liberopoulos wrote to Papandreou asking for a meeting with him but will instead have to settle for talks with Ragousis on Friday.

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