Strike hits Greece as auditors mull further cuts

ATHENS - A general strike hit Greece on Wednesday, paralysing public services and disrupting transport as EU-IMF auditors worked to finalise the recession-hit country's next budget, looking to eliminate a fiscal shortfall that could bring more unpopular cuts.

Defying pouring rain, some 4,000 members of the Communist-affiliated union PAME marched to central Syntagma square, police said.

Another 1,000 protesters gathered outside the offices of the biggest union GSEE but the main demonstration was scrapped due to the weather.

"It is an unfortunate occurrence, the protest will not take place owing to the weather conditions," a GSEE spokeswoman said.

Similar protests are being held in Greece's second city Thessaloniki, with some 10,000 demonstrators taking part, according to police.

The latest strike this year by the country's main unions shut down the civil service as well as train and ferry services nationwide.

Hospitals were operating on reduced staff and several flights were cancelled because of work stoppages by civil aviation staff.

Journalists also staged a five-hour walkout to 1300 GMT.

GSEE, which represents the private sector, said workers were "carrying on their struggle against pointless austerity policies".

"The government and (creditors) are talking about fiscal gaps and deficits. But they don't say that the big gap is in the social state and society," GSEE chairman Yiannis Panagopoulos said in a statement.

Greece lurched into recession when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, and by 2010 rising borrowing costs on its massive debt forced Athens to seek a bailout from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Two bailouts, worth up to 240 billion euros ($325 billion) plus about 100 billion euros in a debt write-off, helped stave off a feared break-up of the euro and kept the Greek state financially afloat.

However they came at a stiff cost to Greeks. In order to tap the bailout loans the Greek government had to raise taxes while cutting benefits, wages, and jobs.

Since 2008, the unemployment rate has tripled to 27.6 per cent while the economy has contracted by 22 per cent.

"We will not stop. Our only hope lies in struggle," Panagopoulos said.

The mission by the so-called troika of creditors - the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank - is expected to push for more unpopular austerity measures to cover a fiscal gap of two billion euros ($2.7 billion) forecast for 2014.

The troika's report is also necessary to unlock a vital one-billion-euro ($1.3 billion) loan instalment.

There is anger in Greece over ongoing cuts in the face of a six-year recession and soaring unemployment, and further outrage that new taxes are being prepared to help meet deficit goals.

On Tuesday, protestors heckled the auditors outside the finance ministry and a man was briefly detained after throwing coins at the car of the IMF mission's chief.

A sizeable number of government deputies have also protested at plans to increase tax on agricultural land, a move that has put pressure on Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

"This is a negotiation... we should remove the notion that this is a war," Samaras said in a televised interview late on Monday.