Tempe blocked for a day

Having closed off the main road artery linking northern and southern Greece for most of yesterday, protesting Thessaly cotton farmers will meet this morning to discuss whether to continue the disruption or accede to government calls for further negotiations. At 10 a.m., farmers moved hundreds of tractors into position at the Tempe tollpost on the Athens-to-Thessaloniki highway, some 400 kilometers north of the capital, in a bid to drive home their demand for extra crop subsidies. Traffic was diverted off the road at the Gyrtoni exit and sent through the town of Elassona, although protesters said they would let ambulances through. The protest was scheduled to last until 10 a.m. today, and it was unclear until late yesterday whether farmers were bent on persisting with the roadblocks – which they launched after days of pledging not to. The head of the Larissa cotton farmers’ union, Thanassis Kokkinoulis, said he would propose a halt to the protest, but this may not be enough to sway the majority of union members. Protesters want the state to buy up some 45,000 tons of their produce in excess of the EU-established quota, which the government has repeatedly ruled out as illegal. This caused talks to break down. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros yesterday condemned the roadblocks, but gave no indication of an imminent police swoop to clear the highway. «We are against acts that target society,» he said. «But we will not deflate any tires.» This was a reference to the PASOK government’s master move in 1997, which ended a similar protest by incapacitating farmers’ tractors. In Parliament yesterday, PASOK leader George Papandreou, who is to visit Larissa today, pledged support for the protesters. «[PASOK has] deep roots in the countryside,» he said. «We made mistakes in the past, be we are still very close to the farming community.» Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos lashed back, inviting Papandreou to «apologize in Larissa for the oversights of the past decade, which gave rise to [the current] problems.» Bassiakos accused the previous government of having turned a blind eye to cotton fraud, claiming that 1,930 farmers had received full subsidies despite having declared the same field twice over. Cotton farmers in the Thessaloniki region also closed off four roads for a few hours around noon yesterday, but lifted the roadblocks early in the afternoon.