Page last updated at 15:32 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Greece hit by third general strike in a month


BBC's Malcolm Brabant: "There is a great deal of anger on the streets"

Public services and transport in Greece have ground to a halt as workers stage a third general strike in protest at the government's austerity measures.

Flights are grounded, and most schools and hospitals closed in the 24-hour walk-out called by the two main unions.

Riot police fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters during a large demonstration in the capital, Athens.

The government says it sympathises with public anger over tax rises and wage cuts but is refusing to back down.

The country currently has a spiralling public deficit of 12.7%, more than four times higher than eurozone rules allow.

The government has pledged to cut this to 8.7% this year, and also reduce the 300bn-euro (£275bn; $410bn) national debt, by cutting public sector salaries, raising the average retirement age, and increasing sales taxes.

'Deep freeze'

Thursday's march in central Athens was the largest since the troubles in Greece began, with an estimated 25,000 people taking part, says the BBC's Malcolm Brabant.

Riot police, who were out in force to avoid a repeat of the violence seen during the previous strike last Friday, fired tear gas to disperse dozens of hooded protesters who threw rocks and other projectiles at the start of the march.

Between bankruptcy and recession, between the devil and the deep blue sea, there is no other alternative to the abyss
Dimitris Daskalopoulos
Greek employers' association

The violence spread after the end of the march to a nearby square, and more than a dozen businesses and several vehicles were damaged. Police said 12 people were detained and two officers injured.

Minor clashes were also reported in the second city Thessaloniki, where about 14,000 people marched through the city.

Thursday's strike was called by Greece's main private sector union, GSEE, and its public sector sister union, ADEDY, which together represent half of the country's five million workers.

Earlier, air traffic controllers closed the country's airspace for 24 hours and ferries were left in harbours as maritime unions joined the strike.

Officers from the police, fire and customs services also walked out.

Buses and trams are not operating in Athens or Thessalonik, hospitals are dealing only with emergencies, and news broadcasts have been suspended because many journalists are on strike.

Unions say the European Union-backed austerity plan will only hurt the poor and aggravate the recession-hit country's economic problems.

"They are trying to make workers pay the price for this crisis," GSEE leader Yiannis Panagopoulos told the Associated Press. "These measures will not be effective and will throw the economy into deep freeze."

Deficit: 12.7% of output, four times higher than EU limit
Debt: 300bn euros (£275bn; $410bn)
Unemployment: 10%
Inflation: 2.8%

Although public anger against the tax rises and pay cuts is increasing, some analysts believe the strikes are having little impact, and the government is refusing to back down, saying it has no alternative, our correspondent says.

Potential rebels within the governing socialist party who have objected to the belt-tightening have been forced to toe the official line.

Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the head of Greece's employers' association, denounced the street protests in his first major public pronouncement.

He said the government had no alternative but to reform the country and accused strikers of wanting to maintain the deplorable conditions that had forced Greece to look for charity from foreign markets.

"Between bankruptcy and recession, between the devil and the deep blue sea, there is no other alternative to the abyss," he told reporters.

"It is necessary to start again and to reform the country."

Budget crunch

Passengers wait for flights at Athens airport (11 March 2010)
Air traffic controllers have closed Greece's airspace for 24 hours

On Friday, MPs approved an additional 4.8bn euros ($6.5bn) in savings, which included rises in sales taxes, a cut in holiday bonuses paid to civil servants and a pensions freeze.

The measures came on top of the government's initial 11.2bn-euro ($15.2bn) austerity plan.

Another general strike has been called for 16 March.

By spring, Greece must refinance a large chunk of its national debt or risk defaulting on its loans.

Concerns about its giant debts currently make it more expensive for Greece to borrow money compared with most other European nations.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is seeking assistance from fellow eurozone nations to make it cheaper to borrow funds on the international financial markets.

EU leaders have pledged to help Greece, but have not outlined any concrete measures.

European debt and deficit figures

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