Thousands of protesters gather amid Greek general strike, 2 weeks after deadly riots

By Elena Becatoros, AP
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thousands of protesters gather amid Greek strike

ATHENS, Greece — Thousands of protesters gathered in central Athens Thursday as unions held a general strike against austerity measures, two weeks after violent protests left three people dead in a bank fire.

Demonstrators planned two rallies in the Greek capital as the strike closed schools, halted ferries and trains, and kept hospitals running on emergency staff.

Unions are protesting harsh measures imposed by the cash-strapped government. During Greece’s last general strike on May 5, three workers — including a pregnant woman — died when a bank was torched by rioters.

Public anger has grown against deep pension and salary cuts, as well as steep tax hikes, imposed in an attempt to pull Greece out of an unprecedented debt crisis. The measures were needed for Greece to receive a euro110 billion three-year rescue loan package from other European Union countries and the International Monetary Fund that staved off bankruptcy.

Unions argue low-earners will suffer disproportionately from the measures.

“When will construction workers retire, at age 80?” Communist Party lawmaker Haralambos Haralambous said. “How do you expect him to carry a bag of cement on his bag until that age?”

In central Athens, members of a communist-backed labor union staged an occupation of the Labor Ministry. Police did not intervene to end the occupation.

Thursday’s major strike — the fourth this year — affected all public and many private employers. However, unlike other general walkouts, most flights were unaffected as air traffic controllers stayed on the job. Some small regional airports closed, and Greece’s Olympic Air carrier said it was canceling 30 domestic flights.

Thousands of protesters also gathered in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki.

Greece’s largest traders association urged the government to take appropriate police measures to prevent damage to stores which are frequently vandalized during protest marches.

The country’s debt crisis has sent shock waves through global markets. That, combined with fears for Europe’s struggling economy and German warnings that the future of the euro is at stake, sent the common currency to a four-year low against the dollar Wednesday.

Warding off bankruptcy, Greece on Wednesday repaid 10-year state bonds worth euro8.5 billion ($10.43 billion) after receiving rescue loans from European countries and the International Monetary Fund.

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