REPORTING FROM ATHENS -- In what organizers vow will be the biggest protest yet, austerity-fatigued Greeks kicked off a two-day general strike Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a new batch of budget cuts necessary to stave off a devastating government default.
Buses, trains and ferries came to a standstill, and scores of flights across the country were disrupted.
For the first time, small businesses, from bakeries to convenience stores, also joined the strike action, which was organized by the country's two biggest labor unions.
In Athens, thousands of workers, not all of them from the unions, poured into the streets, marching on Parliament, where lawmakers have begun debating the latest round of austerity measures, including a rash of tax hikes and wage and salary cuts for 2011 and 2012.
Approving the measures in a vote scheduled for Thursday is imperative if Athens is to receive an $11-billion installment of rescue loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Without the funds, Greece could go bankrupt within weeks.
Prime Minister George Papandreou called on lawmakers to pass the austerity plan, urging them to adopt "a stance of responsibility."
The vote comes ahead of a potentially make-or-break EU summit this weekend at which leaders are expected to unveil a new arsenal of measures to battle the debt crisis that threatens the euro currency.
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: Thousands of protesters gather in Syntagma Square in downtown Athens to protest the government's austerity cuts. Credit: Simela Pantzartzi / EPA