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Clashes as workers strike in Athens

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Worker protests in Greece
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Riot police clash with protests during strike over planned budget cuts
  • Confrontations follow protest march attended by tens of thousands in Athens
  • Action is latest to hit country as government imposes austerity measures
  • Flights cancelled and public transport network closed down

Athens, Greece (CNN) -- Police fired tear gas and clashed with youths on Athens' streets Wednesday, during otherwise peaceful demonstrations against an austerity program designed to bring down the country's deficit.

The confrontations between police and the youths -- who appeared to not be a part of the organized strikes -- lasted about half an hour on Wednesday afternoon. A CNN crew later saw smashed windows and restaurants with broken chairs.

Despite the violence, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully to protest the cuts that are intended to lift the nation out of debt.

"They made the crisis. They are responsible for the crisis because they are trying all the time to get more money," one man told CNN, apparently referring to the government.

A woman told CNN: "We fight for the youth, for the future of the youth."

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Some of the protesters blamed the violence on "anarchists."

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The protests were organized by labor unions who went on a daylong strike on Wednesday. The strike shut down schools and offices, grounded flights and stopped bus services.

Two labor groups -- one representing public employees and the other private -- called the general strike to object to the austerity program, which is designed to bring down the country's deficit from more than 12 percent of the gross domestic product.

European Union rules specify that member countries keep their deficit below 3 percent.

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To do so, the government wants to trim pay and benefits for public sector workers, and said it may raise the country's value added tax.

The two unions who called the strike collectively represent about 2.5 million workers in a country of 11 million.

An official with the Athens International Airport said planes will not fly in or out of the airport all day.

Public transport was shut down in many areas, and some hospitals operated with only emergency staffing.

Polls show that the majority of Greeks actually support the plans to cut the safety net for public sector workers and attempts to get the rich to pay more taxes.

The government says Greece has to modernize its tax structure as the country suffers from tax avoidance and other structural impediments to job growth.

But younger workers say they already pay high taxes, have little job security and make less money than older generations.

Officials with International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank are expected to meet with Greek government officials Wednesday to get a progress report on the austerity plan.

The government has until March 16 to show the EU concrete measures it is taking. It has said it will not back down in the face of strikes.

CNN's Jim Boulden contributed to this story

 
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