Greek protesters target German officials at event

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By COSTAS KANTOURIS, Associated Press

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Dozens of Greek anti-austerity protesters forced their way into an exhibition site where Greek and German government officials were holding a conference Thursday, with some demonstrators almost breaking into the meeting before being repelled by riot police.

The protesting municipal workers pushed and threw coffee on a German consul, Wolfgang Hoelsche-Obermaier, as he arrived to attend the conference, which brought together Greek and German mayors in the northern city of Thessaloniki.

The workers later forced open shutters and tried to enter the building where the conference was held, but were pushed back by police.

A German deputy labor minister who has been appointed special envoy to Greece, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, was also attending the event.

Fuchtel raised hackles in Greece after saying Wednesday that the work handled by 3,000 Greek municipal workers can be processed by 1,000 of their German colleagues. He later said his comments had been misunderstood.

"These people haven't come here to help us, but to announce our death sentence," said Themis Balasopoulos, leader of Greece's municipal workers union, who was at Thursday's demonstration.

The protesters chanted "Nazis out" and "This will not pass" as they tried to obstruct municipal officials from attending the conference.

Hoelsche-Obermaier said he was not upset by the attack against him.

"It was a misunderstanding. I am more pro-Greek than I was before today," he told reporters.

Germany is the biggest contributor to Greece's rescue loans and has been one of the most vocal advocates of the tough austerity measures demanded of Athens. As a result, protesters in Greece often target Germany in their demonstrations.

Asked about the incident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the German-Greek meeting was "a good thing."

"I heard that there were very constructive talks," she said, but added that "Violence is no means for political disputes."

Last month, around 50,000 people demonstrated in Athens when Merkel paid her first official visit to Greece since the country's massive debt crisis broke out. She expressed support for the conservative-led government's efforts to limit high budget deficits.

The Greek Parliament last week passed a new austerity package that bailout creditors had demanded in exchange for paying out more rescue loans. The package raised the retirement age and cut pensions and raised taxes. It has also has eased restrictions on firing workers.

In a chaotic scene on Thursday, riot police chased protesters through the exhibition complex from building to building. There were no immediate reports of arrests.

Left-wing German lawmaker Annette Groth joined the protesters outside the conference center, where clashes with riot police also occurred.

"I have also been unemployed," she told the crowd. "It is not you who should pay the price for this crisis but the rich."

That argument resonates with many Greeks, who feel that low income earners have borne the main brunt of the country's brutal austerity program.

The recent revelation that Greek tax officials took no action to investigate lists of people with accounts in Switzerland — provided by French authorities — provoked outrage.

On Thursday, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras formally asked Britain to forward information on Greek nationals with offshore HSBC accounts on the Isle of Jersey. The move followed a request from Greek prosecutors, after a list of more than 4,000 alleged HSBC customers with accounts on the offshore financial center was leaked to British authorities.

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