By DEREK GATOPOULOSAssociated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Greece's judges and hospital doctors began a series of lengthy protests against planned austerity measures Monday that will leave thousands of cases, from divorce settlements to contested tax payments, in limbo and routine operations cancelled.
The latest round of action between unions and the Greek coalition is the most serious confrontation yet, and is in protest of the government's ever-increasing mountain of unpaid bills and salaries.
For the next two weeks, judges protesting against expected salary cuts will only handle cases considered to be emergencies. The protest is likely to disrupt everything from disputes over wills to prosecutions against rioters. It is also likely to worsen the country's huge backlog of court cases, including thousands of pending tax settlements.
"We state that we are resolute in our decision to protect our rights as guaranteed in the constitution," Vassiliki Thanou, head of the Association of Judges and Public Prosecutors, told a protest gathering held in a chamber of the Supreme Court.
"Time for the government has run out."
During the protest, courts will open for between one and two hours each day, while court dealing with tax cases will remain closed.
The lengthy protest called by professional groups is a departure from the briefer strikes staged by larger labor groups who have called for a general strike on Sep. 26.
Also Monday, state hospital doctors started an indefinite protest, treating emergency cases only, over unpaid overtime pay. They joined private doctors who earlier this month began refusing to treat state-insured patients without full payment, while pharmacies have also staged on-and-off protests refusing to hand over medicines at prescription prices.
The government is putting off paying suppliers' bills and some salaries while it awaits its next rescue loan installment worth some €31 billion ($40.59 billion).
The country has been relying on international bailout loans so that it is not forced into a chaotic default on its debt and possibly out of the 17 country group that uses the euro. The government is currently trying to finalize an austerity package worth at least €11.5 billion ($15 billion) required for continued emergency rescue loans.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said Monday that the protracted negotiations for the new package, involving coalition partners and representatives of rescue lenders, should be concluded by the end of the week.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras was due later Monday to hold an unscheduled meeting with negotiators from the European Union, European Central Bank and The International Monetary Fund - collectively dubbed "the troika" - to discuss the cuts that will take effect for the next two years.
Stournaras refused to rule local media reports that rescue creditors are pressing Greece to increase the retirement age from age 65 to 67.
Pressed by reporters on the issue, Stournaras replaied: "We'll see."
AP photographer Thanassis Stavrakis contributed.
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