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Acropolis closed, transport halted as Greek strikes spread
ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' Unions and protesters shut down the Acropolis, halted public transport and occupied government buildings on Thursday, intensifying their confrontation with the Greek government as it scrambles to push more painful cuts through parliament.
Greece's largest labor union, the GSEE, sided with protesting public servants and announced plans to strike on Oct. 19 and 20, in opposition to the Socialist government's "ineffective and catastrophic policies," it said.
Stores and even farmers' markets in Athens are also due to close on the first day of the strike.
Public servants are the main targets of new austerity measures, slated for parliamentary approval Oct. 20, that include across-the-board salary cuts, and the suspension of 30,000 workers on the state payroll with reduced salaries.
Pensioners will also see more cuts, and salary earners will pay higher taxes, while parliament has already approved an emergency property tax due to be levies starting this month through electricity bills.
"The recession is deepening, unemployment has rocketed to appalling heights, the economy is collapsing, the living standards of our people has been pushed back decades back," the civil servants' union ADEDY said. "Employees and society are being driven to despair as the (government) pursues its policies that are creating the economic deadlock."
The barrage of punishing reforms comes after Greece acknowledged it would miss its deficit-cutting targets in 2011 and promised international debt inspectors to take further corrective action in 2012.
The country is surviving on euro110 billion ($151 billion) in rescue loans from other eurozone members and the International Monetary Fund, and would default next month unless it receives the next bailout payment of euro8 billion ($11 billion) to be considered for approval next week.
Matthias Mors, a European Commission debt inspector, said in a newspaper interview published Thursday that they were aware of the difficulties the government faced in imposing so many reforms in such a short space of time.
"But I would say that we are at a critical moment, where Greece has to convince the international community and the other euro area members that it is willing and able to reach the objectives it has committed itself to," the daily Kathimerini quoted him as saying.
Mors said Greece needed to overhaul its bloated public sector, but that it had agreed with the government that this should be done over the course of five years.
"We are not saying that there should be large-scale dismissals," he said.
Outside parliament, hundreds of transport workers and protesting hospital staff ' some sporting surgical equipment and wearing oxygen masks ' staged anti-governmeht rallies that ended peacefully.
Elsewhere, protesting Culture Ministry employees sealed the entrance to the Acropolis and other ancient sites and museums, while protesting power workers occupied administrative offices of the Public Power Corporation to try and disrupt the distribution of property tax notices.
And local government workers stormed a nationwide meeting of mayors, scuffling with organizers. Their protest has halted garbage collection for 12 days in the Greek capital ' causing piles of trash to build up on street corners.
State television and radio journalists, lawyers, hospital doctors, teachers, customs and tax officers, seamen and municipal workers have also either walked off the job or are planning strikes in the coming days. Taxi drivers are expected to stay off the streets Friday during the second day of the public transport strike, leaving private cars as the only transport in Athens.
European leaders are to discuss Greece's situation during a crucial summit in Brussels on Oct. 23. Prime Minister George Papandreou was in Brussels Thursday for meetings with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the regular meetings of the eurozone finance ministers.
Juncker insisted Greece would not default on its debts.
"All those who are speculating that Greece could be obliged to leave the euro area, are misleading their judgment," he said after this meeting. "This will not happen as it will not happen that we will have to face the Greek default. Everything will be done in order to maintain the financial stability of the euro area. We'll be helpful as far as we can to Greece."
Papandreou also spoke late Thursday night by phone with International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, his office said ' the second time this week the two have discussed the Greek crisis. Lagarde and Papandreou discussed preparations ahead of the Oct. 23 summit, the premier's office said.
AP Television producer Theodora Tongas and AP photographer Thanassis Stavrakis in Athens contributed.