By DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Farmers from across Greece travelled to central Athens on Tuesday, waving black flags to protest austerity cuts that the country's rescue lenders say must be completed quickly.
About 2,000 farmers gathered outside the Agriculture Ministry, travelling from as far as the island of Crete to attend the demonstration against new tax reforms introduced by the conservative-led government, which is struggling broaden the tax base to make up for weak revenues.
"The problem is that we no longer make enough money to support our families," said Panagiotis Giogas, a peach and asparagus farmer from the northern town of Pella.
"We are taxing everything now. It takes a month's income just to fill up the tractor with gasoline," said Giogas, who joined the peaceful rally. "My father and grandfather worked the same land that I do. But farmers will have to sell their land."
A series of tax exemptions have been scrapped for farmers under the latest reforms that took effect this year and were demanded by the eurozone and International Monetary Fund in exchange for rescue loans that have kept the country afloat for nearly three years.
The bailout funds are worth a total of €240 billion ($312 billion) — greater than the size of the country's annual gross domestic product, which is about €200 billion ($260 billion). National debt continues to rise and is expected to exceed €330 billion ($429 billion) in 2013 despite a major restructuring of privately-held debt last year.
Late Monday, finance ministers from the 17-nation Eurozone expressed satisfaction that fiscal targets set for early this year had been met but called "on the Greek authorities to keep the reform momentum."
Debt inspectors from the IMF, European Union and European Central Bank have been meeting with government officials in Athens this week to press for faster implementation of a program to reduce the number of public sector employees. Some officials are skeptical that the targets can be achieved through staff attrition alone.
By 2010, the total number of full-time employees on the state payroll had reached 750,000, including police, the military and Greek Orthodox priests. Greece has promised to reduce that number by 150,000.
"The public sector has to be reduced so that the Greek government can further reduce its deficit," said George Tzogopoulos, a senior researcher at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.
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