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Greek civil servants walk off job on 24-hour strike against austerity; flights grounded
ATHENS, Greece (AP) ' Greek civil servants walked off the job on a 24-hour strike Wednesday, paralyzing the public sector in a protest over ever-deeper austerity measures applied as the government struggles to avoid a catastrophic default.
At least 16,000 protesters converged in central Athens, and a crowd of about 10,000 gathered in the northern city of Thessaloniki. They chanted slogans, banged drums and blew whistles.
Air traffic controllers joined the strike, grounding all flights to and from Greek airports. State hospitals were running on emergency staff, while lawyers, school teachers and tax officers also didn't work. Public transport employees were holding work stoppages in the morning and evening, and state television and radio pulled news programs off the air.
Demonstrators who gathered in central Athens expressed outrage over their misfortune and bewilderment at a crisis that shows no signs of easing.
Irini Sypsomou-Arapogianni, a 57-year-old Finance Ministry employee, said the government should have acted more boldly to stem tax evasion and seemed to have lost its way despite pledges to stabilize the economy.
"Nobody knows what's going on. Every day they say something different. It's all so unclear," she said. "I don't know where all this will lead."
Civil servants are protesting plans to suspend about 30,000 staff on partial pay, part of new cutbacks that come on top of salary and pension cuts, as well as repeated waves of tax hikes over the past year and a half.
Greece relies on a euro110 billion ($145 billion) package of international bailout loans to prevent default and to pay salaries and pensions. But it has slipped on meeting budget targets required to qualify for the funds.
Its international creditors said this week that a decision on whether to give the country the critical next batch of loans, worth euro8 billion ($10.5 billion), would be made some time this month ' far later than the originally expected September.
Protesters in Athens directed anger at their foreign creditors, saying they had little hope that the hardship inflicted by austerity measures would yield benefits in the long run.
"If these protests don't have an effect, then we deserve our fate," said Zacharis Zacharia, a 59-year-old demonstrator. "Everybody's paying except those few who drove us to this point."
While the country has said it only has funds to keep it solvent until mid-October without the next loan installment, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Tuesday that Greece has enough money to pay pensions, salaries and bondholders through mid-November.
Global markets have been roiled by concerns that a messy Greek default could bring down European banks, drag other troubled eurozone countries into further financial trouble and trigger another global recession.
Venizelos insisted Greece would be able to meet its commitments and that there was no question of a default ' but urged his countrymen to pay their taxes and support the government effort to ensure the situation doesn't deteriorate.
Debt inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission, known as the troika, suspended their review of Greek reforms last month amid talk of delays on Athens meeting its budget deficit targets and implementing reforms it had already pledged.
The government hurriedly announced another series of austerity measures, including an extra property tax, and put into motion plans to suspend civil servants, putting them into a labor reserve on partial pay.
But while the troika returned to Athens after the announcements and are currently continuing negotiations on measures for 2013 and 2014, Greeks were outraged that they had to suffer through yet more tax hikes and cuts to their incomes.
Even members of the Socialist government have voiced concern, saying Greeks cannot withstand any more taxes.
The country is suffering through a deep recession, with the economy expected to contract by 5.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product this year. Unemployment has spiraled to above 16 percent as businesses across Greece have closed down.
Costas Kantouris contributed from Thessaloniki, Greece.