ATHENS, Greece — A general strike halted public transportation across Greece on Wednesday and led to the cancellation of more than 100 flights at Athens International Airport, as unions stepped up opposition to the country's austerity measures.
More than 30,000 protesters chanting "Don't obey the rich — Fight back!" marched to parliament as the city center was heavily policed. A brass band, tractors and cyclists joined one of two main rallies, by a Communist-backed union.
State hospital doctors, ambulance drivers, pharmacists, lawyers and tax collectors also joined school teachers, journalists and thousands of small businesses in the 24-hour strike as more middle-class groups took part in the protest than have in the past. Athens' main shopping district was mostly empty, as many small business owners shuttered their stores.
This year's first major labor protest in Greece began as Prime Minister George Papandreou's Socialist government faces international pressure to make more lasting cuts after the nation's debt-crippled economy was rescued from bankruptcy by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
The government urged protest organizers to prevent potentially violent groups from blending in with peaceful protesters — a common problem for Greek police at large rallies.
"Those who organize rallies must also police them. Everyone has the right to express their views in protest but it must be peaceful ... It will be a crucial day," Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis said.
The strike halted trains, ferries and most public transport across the country, and idled many airlines at the international airport.
"For us workers, even though the legislation (for austerity measures) has passed, they are not a part of our lives. We have not accepted them," striking postal worker Dimitris Katsantonis said while standing outside a closed central Athens post office.
Unions are angry at ongoing austerity measures put in place by the Socialist government in exchange for a €110 billion ($150 billion) bailout loan package from European countries and the IMF.
Stathis Anestis, deputy leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE, said workers should not be asked to make more sacrifices during a third straight year of recession.
"The measures forced on us by the agreement with our lenders are harsh and unfair. ... We are facing long-term austerity with high unemployment and destabilizing our social structure," Anestis told The Associated Press. "What is increasing is the level of anger and desperation ... If these harsh policies continue, so will we."
Anestis said around 60 demonstrations were being planned in cities and towns across Greece, while the GSEE was in talks with European labor unions to try and coordinate future strikes with other EU countries.
Earlier this month, international debt monitors said Greece needed a "significant acceleration" of long-term reforms to avoid missing its economic targets. It also urged the Socialist government to embark on a €50 billion ($68 billion) privatization program to pay for some of its mounting national debt that is set to exceed 150 percent of the GDP this year.
The IMF has said some of the frequent demonstrations against the Greek government's reforms were being carried out by groups angry at losing their "unfair advantages and privileges."
AP Television's Theodora Tongas contributed to this report.