© Agence France-Presse/Sakis Mitrolidis
Thousands of workers protest against budget cuts in Thessaloniki
More than 12,000 protesters marched Saturday against fresh austerity measures the Greek government has prepared to win another slice of an international bailout loan.
As auditors from Greece's international creditors inspected the government's books, four separate marches took place in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
"The Greek people can't take any more," read one banner. A number of ambulances joined the demonstration: hospital workers are among those hit, both by salary cuts and reduced public spending.
"Very soon, the vast majority of the Greek people is going to react," said Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition radical Syriza party, currently riding high in the polls.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is leading the country towards a catastrophe, he warned.
After the main demonstrations, about a thousand activists confronted police near the university in the city centre.
The police, pelted with projectiles, responded with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades before charging the crowd and scattering them.
The main trade unions, opposition parties including the Syriza party and communist activists all joined the protest, and police put the turnout at more than 12,000.
But that was significantly less than the 25,000 who showed up for the same march last year.
© Agence France-Presse/Sakis Mitrolidis
Demonstrators walk past watermelons and peaches thrown in front of the entrance of International Trade Fair conference
The labour movement and the left say the country can take no more of the austerity measures imposed on the country in return for the international bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
According to the government's own figures, the cuts have driven down the standard of living in Greece by 35 percent as wages.
Unemployment has shot up, with nearly a quarter of the workforce out of work, driving the country deeper into recession,now in its fifth year.
And further cuts to civil service wages, pensions and other public expenditure are in the pipeline.
The GSEE, the main trades union federation for the private sector, has denounced Greece's international creditors for pressuring the government to deregulate the labour market.
Its private sector counterpart Adedy has condemned as "barbaric" the latest round of cuts announced by the coalition government.
Saturday's demonstrations, part of the traditional autumn calendar, had added significance this year because of the visit of the auditors from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
The so-called "troika" has been pressing Athens to make up for lost time after the delays caused by back-to-back elections that led to a two-month political deadlock.
Athens, however, is pressing for "breathing space" to carry out cuts, arguing that reducing spending too much too fast will only further depress the economy. A deeper than expected recession has made it harder to meet agreed targets.
© Agence France-Presse
Greek pensioners march during a protest organized by the communist affiliated PAME union in Athens
Nevertheless, Samaras insisted that his priority was to convince the troika to release the next loan instalment, worth 31.5 billion euros ($39.9 billion).
Opening an international fair in Thessaloniki, Greece's second city, he said the government was determined to hold to its commitments despite growing public hostility.
A favourable assessment from the auditors could also determine whether Athens gets extra time to make spending cuts in return for badly needed loans.
They will review Greece's efforts to cut its huge deficit and adopt reforms needed to help improve its economic competitiveness as agreed as part of its 130-billion-euro bailout package.
The government has to finalise a new austerity programme within days to save more than 11.5 billion euros over 2013 and 2014.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is set to meet the chief troika auditors on Sunday afternoon, a source in his ministry said, and present the government's latest savings plan so far.
Samaras is due to meet the leaders of the parties in his coalition government Sunday night, followed by a meeting with the troika on Monday morning.
Source: Agence France-Presse