Greek strike grounds flights

ATHENS (Reuters) - Flights to and from Greece were grounded for four hours on Thursday after air-traffic controllers joined a nationwide public sector strike to protest against the government's response to the financial crisis.

The strike against a public wage freeze and pension reforms is the latest in a series of protests since the police shooting of a teenager in December sparked the country's worst riots in decades, fuelled by discontent over the economic slowdown.

"I am worried about the economic policy of the government, which is to shrink the revenues of employees and pensioners," public sector employee Costas Cordonios told Reuters as a few hundred protesters gathered at a rally in Athens.

"Give us back what you have stolen from us," demonstrators said in banners. "We cannot let privatisations, pension reforms, and unemployment go through."

The 24-hour strike, which also shut down some ministries and public services, was called by public sector unions representing more than half a million workers.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's government launched a 28-billion-euro ($37.95 billion) bank support package in January but huge debts and fiscal problems have prevented the ruling conservatives from giving substantial relief to the poor.

The government has also pledged to take unpopular measures if necessary to bring down its deficit in line with EU rules.

Greece may face a recession in 2009 after years of sustained growth, as key sectors including tourism and construction are hit by the crisis.

ADEDY labour union chairman Spyros Papaspyros said the crisis was no reason to take measures which he said affected the poorest. "We are obliged to go ahead with a series of protests, we will continue on that path," he told Reuters.

Papaspyros said that participation in the strike was high, with up to 70 percent of workers walking off the job in the Finance Ministry and 60 percent in hospitals. Officials at the Greek Interior Ministry said initial figures showed a much lower participation.

Air traffic was suspended from around 1000-1400 local time (0700-1100 GMT), an airport spokesman said. Scores of flights were affected. Olympic Airlines cancelled 55 return flights and rescheduled three, the company said in a statement.

The government was not immediately available for comment on the strike.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou, Harry Papachristou, Deborah Kyvrikosaios, Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Article Published: 14/05/2009