Greece grinds to a halt as general strike gets underway
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Workers across Greece walked off the job on Tuesday, kicking off a crippling 48-hour strike with a mass protest in the capital, Athens, as parliament debated a new austerity plan. Police fired tear gas in clashes with protesters.
AFP - Greece ground to a halt Tuesday as angry workers launched a 48-hour general strike against an austerity drive ordered by its bankruptcy-threatened government in exchange for a European bailout.
Crowds converged early on Syntagma Square, where parliament will vote on sweeping spending cuts as planes, ships and most public transport came to a halt.
Europe's economic tsar Olli Rehn in Brussels warned that Greece faced "a critical juncture" and the austerity programme was the "only way to avoid immediate default."
But that view was not shared by protestors, determined to block passage of the package.
"We don't want your money Europe," Iamando, 36, told AFP on the square where police were already out in force at 11:00 am (0800 GMT). "Leave us alone -- please, please, please."
The number of police in the centre of the capital rose to 4,000, according to the authorities, with traffic unable to circulate in central Athens.
Public transport was halted in Athens for the fourth general strike called this year by the country's two biggest unions, with the exception of the metro whose drivers decided not to strike so as to allow Athenians to swell protest numbers.
In the port of Pireus, near Athens, which links most Greek islands with the mainland as the peak tourist season gets under way, around 200 militant unionists staged a picket to prevent ferries from leaving the port.
Banks, too, were closed and even hospitals were operating on reduced staffing while at airports action by air traffic controllers saw domestic flights cancelled by Greek airlines Olympic Air and Aegean and international departures delayed.
A string of rallies got under way, led by a 4,000-strong Communist march to the parliament square -- a magnet for tens of thousands of protesters and an 'indignants' camp where some of thousands involved said they have clocked up 38 straight days.
"We're like the donkey -- the more you hit it, the more determined it gets," one of those who keeps coming back to the square, Omiros (Homer), 29, told AFP.
An employee of the soon-to-be privatised electricity company, he spoke for a generation of Greeks educated abroad -- Bath, England, in his case.
"If they sold the power company in the UK, it wouldn't be for pennies, and they wouldn't hit you with 300 percent price rises," he added of the other principal gripe among a generation of Greeks earning just hundreds of euros per month.
Prime Minister George Papandreou begged lawmakers Monday night to back his plans to slice 28.6 billion euros from government spending by 2015, and sell off the national silver to meet EU and IMF demands for reform.
In Brussels, EU economic affairs chief Rehn urged the Greek parliament to adopt the austerity programme.
"Both the future of the country and financial stability in Europe are at stake," Rehn said in a statement. "The only way to avoid immediate default is for parliament to endorse the revised economic programme."
In a rare criticism of the government, the governor of the Bank of Greece, Giorgos Provopoulos told Tuesday's Kathimerini daily that "piling more taxes on taxpayers has reached its limit."
He said the new plan "does not place enough emphasis on the containment of spending."
Approval of the austerity measures by lawmakers would unblock 12 billion euros of emergency loans from last year's 110-billion-euro bailout and free eurozone finance ministers to start drawing up a second bailout for as much again at talks Sunday in Brussels.
But even a former IMF board member, economist Miranda Xafa of Geneva-based investment managers IJ Partners, says the plan is deeply flawed.
"In the last year, 250,000 people lost their jobs in the private sector -- and none in the public sector," she told AFP.
"Now the country is bankrupt so it has no choice," she said.
She was sceptical about a plan announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to persuade private sector creditors to extend their exposure to Greek public debt for the next 30 years, another condition for more eurozone government aid.
She said it would almost certainly be seen by the key international rating agencies as a "selective" default.