Police fired tear gas near the Greek Parliament yesterday as clashes broke out with stone-throwing protesters during a demonstration against austerity measures, an AFP reporter said.

The confrontation occurred near the finance ministry with police seeking to block protesters from approaching the building as thousands marched in Athens and other major cities in this year’s first general strike against wage and pension cuts.

At least 36,000 people according to police demonstrated in Athens, Thessaloniki and the port of Piraeus to reject economic policies dictated by Greece’s narrow bankruptcy rescue by the EU and the IMF last year.

With the fresh protests against Greek austerity measures yesterday, the country’s Prime Minister insisted that Greece will repay its bailout loan even as it seeks an extension.

“I can guarantee you we will pay it back. The Finnish taxpayer has nothing to worry about. We will pay it back with interest,” Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said during a joint press conference with his Finnish counterpart Mari Kiviniemi.

Mr Papandreou is on a European tour to drum up support for Athen’s case that it should get more time to pay back the massive bailout loan granted by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

In Greece, meanwhile, a general strike paralysed maritime traffic and train services, disrupted urban transport in Athens and grounded flights for several hours.

Hospitals, government offices, banks and schools were also affected.

“I understand the pain ... I sometimes would like to tell the protestors that I would like to be out there protesting with them because I am not happy but we need more than protests,” Mr Papandreou told reporters in Helsinki.

He said that in the past year, his government had implemented 80 percent of the required austerity measures that have sparked such anger in Greece, pointing to reforms of the pension system, local governance and taxation, for example.

Finnish Premier Kiviniemi meanwhile would not say whether she believed a loan extension was a viable option.

“I won’t go into the specifics now but we are ready to make at the European level a comprehensive package,” Ms Kiviniemi said, adding that if an extension were granted, payment could not be postponed indefinitely.

Mr Papandreou was in Berlin on Tuesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the possibility of getting an extension for repayment.

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