ATHENS: Thousands of Greeks staged a general strike against a new wave of imminent austerity cuts on Thursday as EU leaders were to tackle the eurozone's ongoing economic crisis at a summit.
The fourth such strike of the year has paralysed train and ferry traffic, disrupted flights and shut down public services as unions seek to send a message to the government that they will not tolerate a third straight year of cuts.
Unions, Communist workers and leftists started gathering in Athens to stage separate demonstrations, with similar gatherings to also take place in the second city of Thessaloniki.
The strike is expected to mainly be felt in the main cities where unions hold sway, but many Greeks say that with incomes falling and the threat of unemployment hanging over their heads, striking is not an option.
"What am I, a millionnaire or a shipowner to afford to strike?" asked a kiosk owner in central Athens who opened his business despite a rare decision by the association of kiosks to also join the general strike.
"I suspect the mobilisations are ineffective because they are not complete, not massive. We are not all in the streets, we should all be in the streets, but we are not," said Rodi Tomurcukgul, a teacher of Greek and Turkish.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is holding delicate negotiations with Greece's so-called 'troika' of creditors -- the EU, IMF and European Central Bank -- to secure the release of loans needed to avoid bankruptcy.
The government has been told by its creditors to jumpstart flagging economic reforms and lighten the budget by 9.2 billion euros ($12 billion) next year in order to secure a 31.5-billion-euro loan slice next month.
The money is part of an overall EU-IMF bailout of 130 billion euros that is tied to Greek reform pledges, including a long-delayed privatisation drive.
Waves of prior austerity measures over the last two years managed to slash Greece's runaway deficit by over six percent of output, at the cost of cuts to wages, pensions and benefits.
One in four Greeks are officially unemployed -- with the real number higher still according to unions -- and the economy is in a deepening recession.
At tonight's EU summit, Samaras will be trying to persuade his European peers to give the country more time to apply the latest cuts, which he has promised will be the last.
"We will do everything required to bring Greece at the edge of European competitiveness and make it a model democratic society, a modern economy," Samaras told fellow leaders at a meeting of the European Popular Party in Bucharest on Wednesday.
But he added: "People are not 'spare parts'. You have to fix the problems while keeping the society together, and its cohesion alive."
Samaras and his political allies at home want the latest reform overhaul to extend over four years, to 2016, instead of the current timeframe of two years.
The IMF has publicly accepted the idea but European leaders are sceptical, arguing that the extension will require additional funds which their respective parliaments are unlikely to approve.
The release of the 31.5 billion euros which the Greek government needs to recapitalise banks and replenish liquidity in the economy depends on a troika report on the state of the economy expected to be ready next month.
Samaras had hoped to travel to Brussels with an agreement with the troika on the required austerity cuts but a last-minute disagreement over labour reforms and civil service layoffs has left a number of key issues unresolved.