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Greece Finally Begins to Layoff Public Employees

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Greece's coalition government has finally agreed to cut civil service jobs, announcing 15,000 positions would go this year, amid mounting international pressure to agree on austerity measures needed to secure major new debt agreements.

The announcement Monday signals a shift in Greece's policy, as state jobs have so far been protected during the country's acute financial crisis, which started about two years ago. Public Sector Reform Minister Dimitris Reppas said the job cuts would be carried out under a new law that allows such firings.

Naturally, this hasn’t gone over well with the unions.

Unions have called a 24-hour general strike for Tuesday, in response to the new austerity measures, while about 4,000 protesters joined protest rallies organized in central Athens by left-wing opposition parties.

Greece is racing to push through the tough reforms - which have yet to be agreed to by Greece's coalition partners - to clinch a €130 billion ($170 billion) bailout deal from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and avoid a March default on its bond repayments.

Creditors involved in the bailout negotiations have demanded spending cuts in defense, health and social security, a cut in the minimum wage, as well as the civil service layoffs.

The government has promised to reduce the 750,000-strong broader public sector by 150,000 by the end of 2015, but has so far insisted it could reach that target through staff attrition.

"We are opposed to indiscriminate firings," Reppas said. "The work force reduction is strictly connected with the restructuring of services and organizations at each ministry."

Officials at the Public Sector Reform Ministry gave no details of the new plan, nor would they say how many of the job cuts would be compulsory.

European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said Greece is already "beyond the deadline" to end the talks.

After talks in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there can be no bailout deal unless Athens implements creditors' proposals.

"(The proposals) are on the table," she said. "And time is pressing. Therefore something has to happen quickly."

"Time is pressing and for the entire eurozone much is at stake," Merkel added.

In Athens, talks between the government and debt inspectors from the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank - known as the troika - dragged into early Tuesday.

"The negotiations with the troika are ongoing for the new loan program. It is clear that there is a lot of pressure being put on the country. A lot of pressure is being placed on the Greek people," Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said during a break in the talks.

He called on coalition parties to end the bickering and work more closely together.

"No one is as strong as Hercules on his own to face the Lernaean Hydra," a swamp monster in Greek mythology, he said. "We must all, together, fight this battle, without petty party motives and slick moves."

Greece is in its fifth year of recession, while unemployment has hit record highs of about 19 percent - following a spate of austerity measures in return for the rescue loans, that included significant cuts in pensions and salaries coupled with repeated tax hikes and an increase in retirement ages.

"The current policy of austerity ... is turning workers into pariahs, jobless people and pensioners into paupers and deprives our youth of any hope," a statement from the main civil servants' union ADEDY said. "This policy has already pushed Greeks beyond their limits and must be stopped at any cost."

Yiannis Panagopoulos, leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE, said the creditors' demands were certain to lead to more hardship.

"What is going on is not a negotiation," he said. "It's blunt, cynical blackmail targeting an entire people."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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