Greeks stage new protest on eve of eurozone bailout meeting

Hundreds of banner-waving protesters staged a rally in Athens on Sunday to protest at deep budget cuts as eurozone ministers prepare to approve a new 130-billion-euro bailout for the debt-laden nation.

Hundreds of police were also out for the latest demonstration, held a week after parliament passed new austerity measures, sparking violent protests which saw gangs of rioters torch dozens of buildings in the Greek capital.

?Poverty and Hunger Have No Nationality,? read one banner carried by demonstrators on Syntagma square outside parliament. ?We Are Greeks, Merkel and Sarkozy Are Freaks? said another, referring to the German and French leaders.

Police put the number of protesters at 1,500.

The latest budget cuts include a 22 percent cut in the minimum wage, while pensions of more than 1,300 euros ($1,700) a month will be slashed by 12 percent, further adding to the economic hardship of ordinary Greeks.

?Everyone should take to the streets,? one protester, taxicab owner Gregoris Militis, 52, told AFP. ?People aren?t taking taxis anymore except for emergencies.? Greece?s private and public sector unions joined forces to call Sunday?s protest, rejecting what they brand ?unacceptable demands? set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, saying they violate workers? rights and collective agreements.

Radical leftist parties are also due to stage a second protest in Athens on Sunday afternoon.

?We are ashamed of our politicians, aren?t you?? said a banner in orange, the colour of a new party calling itself Creation Again.

?The measures are the worst thing that could have happened. It is outrageous. All the people are suffering. Shortly we will be asking ourselves where the bread is?? said pensioner Christos Artemis.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in an interview that Greece should stop looking for scapegoats abroad for its problems and work harder to get itself out of its economic mess, ?I wish the Greeks would concentrate on rebuilding their state rather than blaming scapegoats outside Greece for their plight,? Reding, who is also vice-president of the European commission, said in an interview with the Austrian daily Kurier.

The latest Greek cuts are aimed at reviving the nation?s moribund economy — which is battling a 350-billion-euro debt mountain, by making businesses more attractive to investors and reducing the size of the parallel economy.

The measures, which total 3.2 billion euros, were drawn up in return for the new bailout which eurozone finance ministers are due to finalise in Brussels on Monday to try to save Greece from bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro.

On Saturday, the cabinet approved cuts that made up a 350 million euro shortfall in the package. A senior official told AFP in Brussels last week however that a 5.5 billion euro hole remains.

The second bailout deal would write off 100 billion euros of debt and provide a loan of 130 billion euros to Greece, which already received a 110 billion euro rescue approved in May 2010.

Time is of the essence for the coalition government led by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos because without the bailout Greece will be unable to meet a bond repayment of 14.5 billion euros on March 20.

EU partners see Greece as the victim of chronic financial mismanagement by dynastic political forces — what Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti last week called a ?perfect catalogue? of errors.

The new bailout has been likened to the aid equivalent of a hospital drip, with a small army of EU officials heading to Athens to make sure Greece delivers on its austerity pledges.

The Italian government said Friday after telephone talks that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Monti and Papademos were ?confident that a deal can be reached on Greece at the Eurogroup.? [AFP]