- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

ATHENS — Police clashed with protesters hurling petrol bombs and bottles in central Athens on Wednesday, after an anti-government rally called as part of a general strike in Greece turned violent.

Riot police used tear gas and pepper spray against several hundred demonstrators when the violence broke out near the Greek parliament.

Protesters also set fire to trees in the National Gardens and used hammers to smash paving stones and marble panels to use as missiles against the riot police.

About 50,000 people joined the union-organized march in central Athens on Wednesday, held during a general strike against new austerity measures planned in the crisis-hit country.

The action, the first large-scale walkout since the country’s coalition government was formed in June, closed schools and disrupted flights and most services.

Everyone from shopkeepers and pharmacists to teachers, customs workers and car mechanics joined the demonstration, seen as a test of public tolerance for more hardship after two years of harsh spending cuts and tax hikes.

“People, fight. They’re drinking your blood,” protesters chanted as they banged drums.

As the strike got under way Wednesday, Greece’s prime minister and finance minister hammered out a $14.87 billion package of spending cuts demanded by the country’s international lenders.

Greece’s politicians have struggled to come up with more austerity measures that would be acceptable to its rescue creditors, with disagreements arising between the three parties that make up the coalition government.

Since mid-2010, Greece has relied on international loans from the International Monetary Fund and the 16 other European countries that share the same euro currency. Without that aid, Greece would be forced into a chaotic default on its debts and possibly into an exit from the so-called eurozone.

The country’s lenders have demanded more fiscal reforms in return for more rescue payouts. The next payment of $40 billion hinges on the government agreeing to further cuts.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras formulated a deal on the new $15 billion austerity package for 2013-14, along with another $2.6 billion in improved tax collection, a finance ministry official said Wednesday.

Mr. Samaras is expected to brief the other two party leaders of the coalition on Thursday.

Wednesday’s strike shut down the Acropolis, Greece’s most famous tourist site, and halted flights for hours. Ferry services were suspended. Schools, shops and gas stations were closed, and hospitals were functioning on emergency staff.

One of those striking was Athens hospital worker Alkis Betses, who has seen his monthly salary fall from $1,680 to $1,035. He said the new cuts will bring pay down to $775.

“How can you survive on [$775] a month — with ever-rising taxes — and continue to pay bills and buy necessary supplies?” he asked.

Mr. Betses said hospitals have been hard hit by spending cuts, with staff shortages and long delays in doctors’ overtime pay for night shifts.

“The resentment has been there for long before the new measures. Imagine what will happen when they’re made public,” he said.

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