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Greek cotton farmers temporarily end national highway blockade

Greek cotton farmers have decided to temporarily suspend their blockade of the main north-south highways in their dispute with the government over subsidies for excess production, their union said Saturday.

The farmers have left their tractors by the side of the highways and will decide at a meeting Sunday whether to resume the blockade, the union said.

However two secondary roads near Lamia and Veria, in central Greece, were again blocked Saturday afternoon, local police reported.

Some 400 tractors disrupted traffic Friday at a critical intersection of the main north-south artery linking the country's two biggest cities, the capital Athens and Salonika, forcing police to divert traffic through mountain passes. Another group of farmers blocked a highway from Salonika to Bulgaria.

Greek Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos said Saturday that the price of cotton would be fixed at 0.11 euros/kg (0.14 dollars/kg) instead of the initial price of 0.07 euros/kg (0.09 dollars/kg).

Greece is the biggest cotton producer in the European Union. Under EU law, Greek farmers are allowed to sell 1.14 million tonnes of cotton per year at the fully subsidised price.

Farmers in central Greece, the country's breadbasket, have been holding roadside protests since mid-January to demand that their 2004 surplus, 70,000-tonne production be sold at the subsidized price.

Under the terms of an agreement reached by EU governments in April, the Union will by 2010 no longer link subsidies to cotton farmers to actual production.

The European Commission, the EU executive, is trying to push through measures to reform a system of subsidies that gobbles up about 44 billion euros (50 billion dollars) -- nearly half of all the bloc's annual spending.

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