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Greece public transport strike hits capital again

By Elena Becatoros

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 13 2011 1:55 a.m. MDT

Commuters walk in a deserted metro station during a 48-hour strike by public transport in Athens, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. Public transport in Greece's capital has ground to a halt once more as workers start a 48-hour strike against new austerity measures imposed by the government.

Thanassis Stavrakis, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — Public transportation ground to a halt in Greece's capital once again Thursday as workers began a 48-hour strike against new austerity measures imposed by the government.

In a separate protest, state power company employees occupied a power company building to prevent electricity bills from being issued that include a new property tax that many Greeks say they cannot pay. The government has threated to cut off power to those who do not pay.

"Electricity ... cannot be used as a means of blackmail against the unemployed, the poor, the wage-earner," the GENOP-DEH union said. "(We) will not allow our poor fellow citizens to be left without power."

Greece is trying to ensure it qualifies for loans from a €110 billion ($151 billion) international bailout that is the only thing preventing it from defaulting on its massive debts. The strikes and the takeover are the latest in a series of walkouts, sit-ins at government buildings and protests as unions lash out against the austerity measures the government is demanding.

State television and radio journalists, lawyers, hospital doctors, teachers, customs and tax officers, seamen and municipal workers have also either walked off the job or are planning strikes in the coming days. Taxi drivers are expected to stay off the streets Friday during the second day of the strike, leaving private cars as the only transport in Athens.

Another nationwide general strike is planned for Oct. 19.

The government announced the new property tax last month after international debt inspectors suspended their review of Greek reforms because of concerns over missed targets and delayed implementation.

The new tax is calculated on a sliding scale depending on size and location of property, and is to be imposed through electricity bills to circumvent Greece's dysfunctional tax system and make it easier for the state to collect. Those who do not pay risk having their electricity shut off.

But the power employees' union has reacted with outrage, saying the power company should not be used as a tax collection system. Workers have said they will refuse to switch consumers' electricity off for nonpayment of the new tax.

Greece is becoming trapped in a vicious cycle. The government insists it has no choice but to impose the harsh austerity measures so it can to get bailout loans to pay its bills. But Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos says the repeated strikes are leading Greece's international creditors to doubt the government's ability to achieve its fiscal targets, which in turn raise the issue that more austerity measures must be imposed.

Greece's debt inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission completed a review of the country's reforms this week, and said the next vital €8 billion ($11 billion) installment of the bailout will likely be available in early November.

Athens has said it will run out of money to pay salaries and pensions in mid-November without the funds.

European leaders are also to discuss Greece's situation during a summit Oct. 23. Prime Minister George Papandreou was in Brussels Thursday for meetings with Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the regular meetings of eurozone finance ministers, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

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