ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of police marched through Athens on Thursday, chanting "thieves, thieves" and carrying black flags, to oppose planned pay cuts under a huge new austerity package meant to save Greece from defaulting on its mountain of debt.
The 4,000 protesters, who also included firefighters and coast guard officers, lit flares, blared spray-can horns, and set up mock gallows outside parliament.
The peaceful anti-government demonstration came amid deepening social gloom as official figures showed Greece's unemployment rate surged to 24.4 percent in June, including more than 1.2 million people out of work, many of them youths.
It was the latest in a string of protests against the new €11.5 billion ($14.4 billion) austerity package for 2013-14, demanded by rescue creditors from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
A top labor leader warned Thursday that the spending cuts would unleash unprecedented social unrest without helping the recession-shackled economy.
"To insist on the (current) austerity program and adopt new measures against the less well-off will provoke a social explosion that is violent and of an intensity never seen before by Greek society," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the country's main GSEE union.
Without the measures, Greece will lose access to the vital bailout loans that are shielding it from bankruptcy. But after 2 1/2 years of punishing austerity, the new cutbacks planned by Greece's conservative-led governing coalition have sparked deep anger, spawning unusual protests by workers such as judges and police.
Thursday's protesters shouted slogans such as "Thieves, thieves," ''Shame, you're delivering the final blow to the security forces," and "Come out and see how low you have brought us," as they marched to the Finance Ministry in central Athens.
They set up mock triple gallows on an open-top van, with a sign reading "Troika" — in reference to the austerity inspectors from the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank. An officer from each of the services — police, coast guard, and firefighters — stood with his head in a noose.
The new austerity program, though not yet finalized, is expected to see further cuts to benefits and pensions for several groups of employees on the state payroll, including the workers marching, judges and university professors.
"If you think a country's security can be protected by beggars and people in rags, you are making a big mistake," said Dimitris Saitakis of the coast guard officers association. "Let those who stay behind their desks join us on a night patrol during a storm and chase illegal immigrants and criminals."
Earlier Thursday, protesting police officers defied colleagues in the riot police and blocked the entrance of one of their own Athens facilities for about four hours.
About 50 officers prevented buses used to carry riot police from leaving the site. The buses are scheduled to go to the northern city of Thessaloniki, where weekend anti-austerity demonstrations are planned.
The jobless figure released by the statistical authority Thursday jumped from 23.5 percent in May and 17.2 percent the previous year — and was more than three times higher than in June 2008, the year before Greece's acute financial crisis began. An average 1,000 jobs were lost every day from June 2011 to June 2012.
Among young people aged up to 25, unemployment was a crippling 55 percent, compared to 20 percent four years ago.
The GSEE union estimates that unemployment will reach 29 percent in 2013, if the austerity measures are implemented. Union officials said that Greeks on minimum wage have seen their spending power reduced to 1979 levels, while those earning an average salary have been pushed back to the equivalent of the early 1980s.
Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.