updated 12/12/2007 12:20:28 PM ET 2007-12-12T17:20:28

Tens of thousands of demonstrators jammed central Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday as a general strike to protest government plans to reform the country's debt-ridden pension system brought Greece to a standstill.

A police helicopter flew overhead thousands of people — some estimates put the number at 80,000 — marched through central Athens in two separate demonstrations. In Thessaloniki, 30,000 people rallied, police said.

Shopkeepers rolled down their shutters and bystanders raced for cover as riot police fired tear gas in clashes along the Athens demonstration route. Groups of youths hurled rocks at police, set garbage cans on fire and set a parked car alight.

Four police were injured and three demonstrators were detained, authorities said. At least one demonstrator was also injured.

Clashes broke out in one central Athens square, with riot police firing tear gas and charging a group of about 300-400 youths minutes after a car parked nearby was smashed and set on fire. No injuries were immediately reported.

The strike shut down hospitals, banks, schools, courts and all public services. Archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, were closed. Some private-run banks were open but public transport, including boats connecting mainland Greece with the islands, ground to a halt.

Country's biggest-ever walkout?
One of the two unions that called the strike proclaimed it Greece's biggest walkout of all time.

"The rallies in Athens and in other cities had unprecedented participation," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, head of the union GSEE.

Athens' subway and tram systems operated for about five hours to help get strikers to ralllies.

Planes were grounded, with air traffic controllers joining the 24-hour strike, which began at midnight Tuesday. Hospitals were accepting only emergency cases. Courts were shut for a second day after lawyers and judges launched a 48-hour strike Tuesday.

Journalists also walked off the job, canceling television and radio news programs. The three state-run television stations were broadcasting only a text stating their support for the strike. No Thursday newspapers were to be published.

Bystanders applauded uniformed Olympic Airlines pilots and flight attendants who joined the march. The transport minister said recently that the debt-ridden flag carrier was unlikely to survive in its current form.

"We are ... fighting for the savior of the national air carrier of Greece, fighting along (with) the other employees" against the government's planned reforms, said airline employee Dimitris Papadimitriou.

Next week will see disruptions as well
More strikes are expected next week, with medical professionals, including pharmacists and dentists, walking off the job for 24 hours on Wednesday and courts shutting down on Wednesday and Thursday.

Labor unions oppose government efforts to reform Greece's fractured pension system. Many fear the reforms could cut pensions and raise retirement ages. Still, recent opinion polls suggest that more than three quarters of Greeks support some form of pension reform.

The funds face estimated future deficits of $165 billion-$550 billion — sums that are expected to affect the budget within a decade.

"Workers should not pay for the mistakes and mismanagement of past governments in handling the pension funds," said Giorgos Skiadotis, who handles union issues for Greece's main communist party, the KKE. He accused the conservative government of attacking the country's social security system.

"We must all stand together ... to defeat this attack," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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