Shops pulled down shutters and public services were paralysed across Greece on Wednesday as workers walked off the job in this year's first nationwide strike against austerity policies to deal with a debt crisis.
Hospitals operated on skeleton staff for 24 hours, schools closed and public transport was disrupted. Only emergency flights will be allowed between 1000 and 1400 GMT with ships staying in port throughout the day.
State television aired documentaries and radio stations played music as journalists joined the walkout.
"This strike kicks off a wave of protest this year with the participation of workers, pensioners and the unemployed. We are against these policies which are certainly leading to poverty and the economy in a deep recession," Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of public sector union ADEDY, told Reuters.
"We expect a big participation today," he said.
The Socialist government cut salaries and pensions and increased taxes last year despite repeated strikes, in return for a 110 billion euro ($150 billion) bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that saved Greece from bankruptcy.
Greece's international lenders approved this month a fresh, 15-billion-euro tranche of the aid, but set a tougher target for privatisation proceeds and called for more reforms.
The government called on organisers to keep the protests peaceful. "Our country has only to gain by safeguarding the democratic right of Greek citizens for peaceful protest," Citizen Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis said.
Workers, students and pensioners gathered in the centre of Athens and were later expected to march to parliament to protest against the belt-tightening, which is aimed at helping the country to ease a huge debt crisis.
"We can't take it any more. I have been looking for work for many months while others are eating with golden spoons," said Thanos Lykourias, 27.
Greece, whose rescue last year was followed by an 85 billion euro bailout for Ireland, is a test case for whether the euro zone's weakest economies can endure the years of austerity required to get public finances back into shape and avoid defaulting on their debt.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that rescheduling Greek debt could be considered in the context of a comprehensive rescue package for the euro. But Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, on a visit to Berlin, said all his country's reforms were aimed at avoiding a debt restructuring.
Markets will be watching for any kind of violence that could derail Greece's fiscal efforts. Analysts say strikes are unlikely to make the government, which has a comfortable majority in parliament, change course but turnout in protests is a way to gauge its popularity.
"The government has no room to change policies," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of ALCO pollsters. "But most Greeks believe the burden is not equally shared and this is a problem."
Private sector union GSEE and its public sector sister ADEDY, which represent about 2.5 million workers or half the country's workforce, have vowed to resist austerity measures, saying they are killing the economy.
Unemployment jumped to a new, seven-year record high of 13.9 percent in November and the economy contracted by 4.5 percent in 2010, the second straight year of a deep recession.
Tens of thousands marched to parliament on Dec. 15 and hundreds clashed with police in the biggest and most violent demonstration since three people died in protests last May.
ReutersLast Mod: 23 Şubat 2011, 13:00