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Prime minister announces handouts as strike cripples Greece

By on December 8, 2016

Supporters of the communist-affiliated union PAME gather during a protest in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. Public services in Greece have been disrupted by a general strike called by unions against ongoing austerity measures. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Supporters of the communist-affiliated union PAME gather during a protest in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

ATHENS, Greece – As thousands of Greeks protested against government spending cuts during a general strike that crippled the country Thursday, struggling Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced one-off measures to ease the burden on pensioners and island residents.

Tsipras said the government would distribute a total of 617 million euros this Christmas to some 1.6 million low-income pensioners, replacing a holiday bonus scrapped by Greece’s bailout creditors.

In a nationally televised address, Tsipras said the cash would come from a larger-than-expected surplus in Greece’s primary budget, which excludes the cost of servicing the country’s crippling debt.

Tsipras has seen his popularity plummet after a series of income cuts and tax hikes demanded by creditors. His left-wing Syriza party trails the main opposition conservatives by more than 10 percentage points in opinion polls.

Tsipras also said his government would restore a lower sales tax rate for Aegean Sea islanders who are struggling to cope with mass arrivals of migrants from Turkey.

“The more the country recovers, the broader and more effective the social redistribution will be, to support those who are in true need,” Tsipras said. “We are covering the last hard meters of a very difficult marathon.We will succeed in exiting the crisis.”

Thursday’s nationwide strike disrupted public transport, state-run schools, ferries and national rail services, and left public hospitals running with emergency staff.

“We can either accept our continuing descent into poverty or fight against it,” theater actor Dionysis Xenakis said.

Protests were held in cities around Greece, with more than 7,000 demonstrators marching in the capital of Athens and 5,000 in the country’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki.

Years of recession and austerity have left nearly a quarter of Greeks unemployed – with most no longer receiving any state benefits.

Thursday’s 24-hour strike went ahead despite a decision this week by bailout lenders to grant Greece a series of short-term debt relief measures aimed at evening out the country’s repayment schedule.

Tsipras’ government is still negotiating a new series of reforms that are expected to remove protection measures for private-sector jobs and distressed mortgage-holders.

“Nothing has been decided until everything is decided,” Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, referring to the ongoing negotiations, told parliament.

Bailout negotiators, he said, were expected to return to Athens next week, with a deal possible by the end of the month on the term of upcoming bailout payout.

“We’ve been at this stage before. Everyone has to stay calm.”

The reforms are part of requirements the country must meet to continue qualifying for emergency loans from its international bailout – the third such rescue package for Greece since 2010.

In return for the cash, successive governments have had to implement sweeping reforms. The crisis has wiped out a quarter of Greece’s economy.

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