Greek deal on austerity measures still elusive

DEREK GATOPOULOS and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS
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Monastiraki metro station is closed during a 24-hour strike by metro, urban railway and tram unions in Athens, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Public transport workers in the Greek capital have joined a growing wave of strikes against new austerity measures that the country's creditors are demanding in return for rescue loans. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A deal on making further cuts to Greece's budget will take a few more days at least, after the leaders behind the coalition government failed to agree details of an austerity package that is crucial to the financial survival of the country.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras met again Thursday with Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of the Pasok socialist party, and Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of the Democratic Left. The three, who have been holding regular meetings for the past few weeks in an attempt to agree a deal, appear to be at odds over how to make further cuts to such things as benefits, salaries and pensions.

The Greek government has to come up with a package of cuts worth at least €11.5 billion ($15 billion) if it's going to get its hands on bailout cash from international creditors. Without the money, Greece faces the real prospect of defaulting on its debts and abandoning the euro.

The government still has time to agree the package, but not much. Greece still has enough money in the bank to cover its expenses over the coming weeks.

Finance minister Yannis Stournaras described the negotiations as "very difficult" but said he hoped a deal would be clinched in coming days. Venizelos said talks would resume next week, probably on Sept. 26, and insisted that cuts worth €8 billion ($10.36 billion) had already been agreed upon.

Politicians have had trouble agreeing on the details of the package, which is expected to include more salary and pension cuts for the years 2013-14. Critics say it's just going to make the recession worse and make it more difficult for Greece to pay down its debts.

"Nothing has been finalized," Kouvelis said. "All those who hastened to declare that the measures have been decided were mistaken."

The new cuts are a source of indignation among many Greeks, including judges and police, especially as Greece has already enacted several austerity packages since it became reliant on bailout loans in May 2010.

Earlier on Thursday, policemen guarding the prime minister's office in central Athens used pepper spray to push back about 20 demonstrating colleagues, who held up a banner that read "Protect those who protect you." No arrests were reported by authorities.

"We staged a small protest together with colleagues from the Coast Guard and the Fire Service. We wanted to hand over a petition to the government," Grigoris Bakaris, a senior member of the Greek Police Officers' Association who joined the protest, told the AP.

"There was an argument — I wouldn't call it a scuffle, but an argument — and that was a very limited use of chemicals (pepper spray) and the incident ended there. We later were allowed to hand in our petition."

Authorities responded to the protest by padlocking entrances to a public park near the prime minister's office, leaving more than 20 tourists stranded inside for over an hour.

Elsewhere in in the capital, public transport workers staged a 24-hour strike, halting subway and tram services.

Judges and doctors at public hospitals also began protests this week, turning away most cases in a slow-down strike, while tax workers are to strike Friday.

Athenian Stelios Noussas drove to work because of the subway strike, but said he supported the protest.

"They're striking for their rights. We're all in the same boat," he said. "If we don't have strikes how will we pursue our rights? Good for them."