Greeks strike against austerity before Merkel visit

School, hospital, transportation staff walk off the job

ATHENS (Reuters) — Thousands of striking Greeks marched to parliament on Wednesday to protest against job cuts and austerity measures imposed by the country's foreign creditors, including Germany, whose leader will visit Athens this week.

Schools and pharmacies were shut, ships remained docked at ports, hospitals operated on emergency staff, and transport in Athens was disrupted due to the 24-hour strike called by private sector union GSEE and its public sector counterpart ADEDY.

More than 20,000 workers, pensioners, students and the unemployed marched peacefully through the streets of the Greek capital chanting "EU, IMF take the bailout and get out of here!"

Unions said their anti-austerity message was also aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is due to meet Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in Athens on Friday. Germany has insisted on painful spending cuts and tax hikes in return for international loans.

"It's time to save people not banks," said 59-year old economist Eleni Prokou. "Merkel and the troika should stop sticking their nose in our business."

Turnout at Wednesday's march, which ended within two hours, was similar to protests held during the last nationwide strike in November.

Unions have staged dozens of strikes since Greece's first bailout in 2010, with turnout at some rallies topping 100,000 and testing the government's will to implement reforms demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Protesters say the crisis, which many Greeks blame on a corrupt political elite, has only hit the poor.

"They are servants of Merkel," said protester Aggelos Mikronis, a 60-year old mechanic, of Greece's politicians as he stood opposite the parliament building. "I'm earning half of what I used to get."

Disruption at sea

Wednesday's disruption was most keenly felt in maritime transport such as the ferry services to and between the Greek islands and on the railways. Seamen, port and train workers walked out in protest at the planned privatisation of Greece's largest ports and railway.

Greeks have lost about a third of their disposable income since the debt crisis started and unemployment has soared, leaving more than one in four without a job.

Samaras' coalition government has been basking in the glow of its latest deal with inspectors from the troika of the EU, ECB and IMF, clinched after nearly seven months of wrangling over issues such as deregulating the milk sector and pharmacies.

The government qualified for further rescue loans after it passed a reform law required by the lenders last month, but it saw its parliamentary majority reduced to just two seats after it had to expel one lawmaker who failed to support it.

Days later, a scandal over the prosecution of far-right politicians helped the leftist opposition halt a rise in support for the government, a poll showed.

Athens said on Wednesday it would return "imminently" to international bond markets for the first time since 2010 by selling a five-year bond to investors.

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