|Athens metro employees attend a strike in central Athens, Greece, Sept. 20, 2012. Athens metro and tram workers' unions went on a 24-hour strike to protest against the Greek government's new harsh austerity measures demanded by the "troika" (EU, ECB, IMF), which include further salary cuts and rise of the public transport fares. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)
ATHENS, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Athens was hit by a new round of protests on Thursday, as the leaders of the three-party coalition government were debating a fresh package of austerity measures for 2013- 2014.
Unionists of policemen, firemen and Coast Guard officers briefly clashed with anti-riot forces close to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' office, shortly before the start of new talks with socialist PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left chief Fotis Kouvelis on the 11.5 billion euro (14.9 billion U.S. dollars) worth package.
In front of the parliament building in the meantime hundreds of employees in the subway and electric train on a 24-hour strike marched, raising banners against the new planned wave of wage cuts and tax increases which read "We can't take it anymore."
Workers at shipyards chanted similar anti-austerity slogans outside the Finance Ministry as Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras was entering the building to prepare for new negotiations with auditors of EU/International Monetary Fund lenders later on Thursday.
No final agreement on the austerity package is expected Thursday, as there is still a gap of 2 billion euros in spending cuts remaining unresolved, he confirmed in statements to the press after talks with Samaras.
"It will probably take a few days yet," he said, expressing optimism that a final deal could be reached by Monday, following a new meeting of political leaders on Sunday.
According to Greek media reports, auditors have raised objections to a part of the measures under discussion, doubting the government's ability to meet the targets in structural reforms in a short term future, and therefore insist on more unpopular cutbacks on wages and pensions.
Conservative Samaras' centre-left coalition partners have repeatedly objected to more burdens on low and middle class households and Greek dailies were noting Thursday that the three-month government's cohesion is facing a major challenge.
Top government officials acknowledge that the pressure is enormous on ordinary recession-hit Greeks, stressing however that Greece is short of alternatives at the moment.
Greek citizens have already made great sacrifices totaling 49 billion euros in austerity measures from 2010 until today, but we need to continue to reverse growth, Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said, addressing a parliamentary committee.
Greece needs to secure a positive assessment of the stability and reform progress by EU/IMF auditors to receive 31.5 billion euro rescue loans later this autumn under bailout deals in order to stave off a disorderly default and potential exit from the euro zone.
The debt-laden country is kept afloat since May 2010 with multi-billion euro loans by international creditors in exchange of a harsh fiscal consolidation and reform program which has been marred with delays in initial time tables due to deep recession fuelled partly by austerity.
Athens pledges to continue on the reform path and reach all targets set, requesting from its creditors more "breathing space", such as a two-year extension in meeting budget deficits. (1 euro= 1.29 U.S. dollars)