Greek farmers clash with police over EU-backed pension reform

Greek farmers wielding shepherd's crooks and throwing stones clashed yesterday with riot police in central Athens during a two-day protest against state plans to increase taxes and cut pension rights.

A farmer wields a shepherds crook to keep riot police at arms length in Syntagma Square, central Athens, amid tear gas fumes. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Riot police fired tear gas to disperse them.

Separate clashes broke out on the main roads leading into the capital. To the east, farmers drove their tractors around police roadblocks to barricade the main route to Athens international airport. To the west, police used tear gas to prevent farmers entering the city in defiance of a government ban on their agricultural vehicles.

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About 800 farmers from Crete who arrived by overnight ferry rallied outside the agriculture ministry in Athens, throwing tomatoes. Tensions escalated when police prevented them from staging a symbolic occupation of the building. Clashes soon broke out, with riot police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones and setting fire to municipal bins.

At one point, an outnumbered riot police unit was forced to flee up a street, with farmers armed with sticks and crooks in pursuit

Many of the agriculture ministry’s windows were broken and broken paving stones lay strewn outside the building. Police said the farmers also threatened to spray them with a pesticide used for olive trees if they used tear gas. At least four farmers were detained.

“These scenes were aimed at blackening the struggle of the farmers,” said agriculture minister and Syriza MP Vangelis Apostolou. “For us, there is one path – that of dialogue to solve the problems of farmers. And this [path] has been opened by the prime minister.”

Farming associations have been blockading highways with tractors for more than two weeks, forcing traffic into lengthy diversions to protest a planned overhaul of the country’s troubled pension system. So far, farmers have refused talks with the government, insisting the pension reform plan must be repealed.

Bail-out lenders are demanding Greece scraps tax breaks for farmers and impose pension changes that will lead to higher monthly contributions from the self-employed and salaried employees.

The protests against the pension changes have united a disparate group of professions, including lawyers, artists, accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists, seamen and casino workers.

Other farmers in buses, pick-ups and cars from north and south were heading to the capital for the main rally, set for yesterday afternoon in Athens’ main Syntagma Square outside parliament.

Although the government initially banned tractors from the Athens protest, Nikos Toskas, the deputy interior minister for public order, said a few would be allowed through for a short period.

“It was clear that we could not permit tractors to enter the city but we have permitted a symbolic number to take part in the protest,” Mr Toskas said.

Greece and its international creditors are still weeks away from any possible agreement about the targets that Athens must meet to secure billions to rebuild its shattered economy.

The chairman of the 19 nations using the euro single currency, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said “further work is needed in a number of areas before a staff-level agreement can be reached”. He said technical-level talks must continue at a good pace so senior officials can return to Athens “and reach agreement in a few weeks”.