New general strike over Greek austerity program

Most public services in Greece ground to a halt and transport was disrupted today as unions staged a new general strike in protest at the government's introduction of harsh austerity measures intended to keep the debt-ridden country solvent.

This month, the government is planning to pass further measures aimed at saving an estimated 23 billion euro (£20.1 billion) between now and 2015.

All train and ferry services were suspended, while an air traffic controllers' strike was due to ground flights between noon and 4pm.

In the capital, Athens, public transport workers started a series of walkouts which were due to last several hours.

About 3,000 members of the Communist-led PAME union marched through central Athens, while the country's two main unions were planning another demonstration later. The marches will be closely monitored by police as previous protests have degenerated into riots.

Some banks were shut but others remained open for business, their fronts protected by half rolled-down shutters in anticipation of the demonstrations.

For the time being, Greece is shielded from insolvency by a 110 billion euro (£96.4 billion) package of rescue loans in a 2010-2013 programme from its European Union partners and International Monetary Fund.

But despite drastic spending cuts - with reductions to pensions and salaries accompanied by increase in taxes and retirement ages - it may need additional support to meet its financing needs next year, as the cost of borrowing from bond markets remains sky-high.

Parliament is expected to vote on the new round of cutbacks later this month. The governing Socialists have also committed themselves to an ambitious - but so far nebulous - privatisation programme worth a total 50 billion euro (£43.8 billion) over the next few years.

However, many promised reforms have not yet been implemented.

The protracted austerity, amid a two-year recession and unemployment at around 15%, has angered unions, which have held more than half a dozen general strikes over the past year.

A statement from the country's largest union, the GSEE, said today's strike expresses "strong protest at the unjust and cruel policies that have caused a surge in unemployment... violated labour rights, and squandered public wealth, while failing to insure an exit from recession".

In Athens' port of Piraeus, Greece's biggest, striking ferry electrician Athanassios Sidiropoulos said the government was trying to scrap rights won over the course of decades by working classes.

"All seamen should have pension and healthcare rights, collective labour contracts, healthcare contributions," he said.

An opinion poll commissioned by the private Mega TV station and published yesterday said 71% of the public oppose the government's handling of the economic crisis, compared with 66% in February.

The Socialists' 18-month-old government held a slender lead over the main opposition conservatives. Details on the number of people questioned in the poll and its margin of error were not provided.