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The Associated Press February 17, 2010, 2:53PM ET

Greek parties clash over statistics debacle

Greece's two main political parties clashed sharply Wednesday over plans by the Socialist government to set up a parliamentary inquiry into the alleged misreporting of financial data that triggered a financial crisis in Europe.

The flare-up could hurt the government's chances of pushing through additional spending cuts sought by the European Union while avoiding a major backlash from labor unions.

"Every time I visit the European Commission, I get asked the same question: 'Isn't someone going to jail. Won't someone be held to account for everything that's happened in your country?'" Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said.

The Socialists sharply revised the 2009 budget deficit after winning general elections last October -- to 12.7 percent of gross domestic product from a 3.7 percent forecast months earlier -- sending Europe into renewed financial crisis over mounting debts by Greece and several other countries using the euro.

Conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras requested a meeting with Prime Minister George Papandreou after plans for the parliamentary probe was announced Tuesday.

The inquiry is the first step toward potential prosecution of officials under previous conservative government.

"This government was lucky because it faced a responsible opposition that provided consensus at a difficult time," Samaras said after the meeting. "But the government took this as a weakness. Now it will realize the mistake it has made."

Labor unions have recently intensified opposition to the Socialists' austerity measures, imposed to try and pull Greece out of its worst debt crisis in decades.

On Wednesday, hundreds of striking finance ministry and customs employees held a protest rally in central Athens.

Finance Ministry employees went on a four-day strike Tuesday, and customs workers walked off the job for three days on Tuesday to protest the measures that they say will slash their incomes.

"Enough. The crisis wasn't caused by civil servants. The bill should go to the wealthy," read a banner carried by striking workers, about 500 of whom marched from the Finance Ministry to the nearby Parliament building.

Last week, striking civil servants shut down schools, grounded flights and walked out of hospitals in a 24-hour protest. A broader, general strike is planned for Feb. 24.

Austerity measures announced so far include a freezing of civil servants' salaries, cuts in stipends and bonuses, a two-year increase in the average retirement age and higher taxes.

Finance Minister Papaconstantinou spoke Wednesday during a lawmakers' committee debate on draft legislation to make the country's statistics agency independent from the Finance Ministry, and be renamed as the Hellenic Statistical Authority.


Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros contributed to this report.

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