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Greek Communists Protest Government Austerity Plans After Cabinet Reshuffle

Protesters participate in a rally against the government's latest austerity measures and plans to sell off state enterprises in central Athens, June 18, 2011

Thousands of Greek communist party supporters have marched through the capital, Athens, to protest government austerity plans aimed at preventing the country from defaulting on its massive debt.

About 5,000 protesters marched to the Greek parliament Saturday, led by communist party leader Alex Papariga, who accused the government of colluding with its creditors to "skin the people alive." The march ended without incident.

Greece has seen weeks of near-daily protests against Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou's plans for tax hikes, spending cuts and state asset sales demanded by international lenders in return for emergency loans.

Papandreou reshuffled his Cabinet Friday, naming his main Socialist rival as finance minister in a bid to ease party criticism of his handling of the crisis. His new government faces a confidence vote on Tuesday in parliament, where the ruling party holds a slim majority, with 155 of the 300 seats.

If the government survives the vote, Papandreou is expected to seek parliamentary approval for the austerity package by the end of this month. Greek labor unions are threatening to stage a 48-hour strike when that happens.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos is due to hold his first meeting with other finance chiefs of the 17-member euro zone in Brussels on Sunday.

EU Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn has said he expects the euro zone ministers to agree to provide Greece with the next installment of a bailout loan approved last year by the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF has said it is ready to release its share of the $17 billion installment if Greece meets its austerity promises.

Greece has said it needs the $17 billion to avoid defaulting on its debts next month. Athens also is seeking a second bailout package to keep its economy afloat beyond September, but EU leaders have been unable to agree on the terms of such a loan, including how much of its should be funded by the private sector.

EU powers Germany and France moved closer to resolving the dispute Friday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that private sector involvement should be voluntary. She previously had demanded compulsory participation by banks and other private lenders.

The chairman of the euro zone's Eurogroup, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, criticized German pressure for private sector funding of a new Greek bailout, likening it to "playing with fire."

In comments to a German newspaper published Saturday, he said a Greek debt default could spread the crisis to other highly-indebted EU nations, including Italy and Belgium, in addition to Spain.