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Greeks strike against wage, benefit cuts

ATHENS -- Police fired tear gas near the Greek Parliament on Wednesday after protesters threw firebombs as thousands of people joined a strike opposing wage cuts and austerity that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said are vital to keep the euro.

Demonstrators streamed into the central Syntagma Square in Athens, opposite the Parliament House, shouting slogans such as "struggle, clash, overturn: history gets written by those who disobey." A police spokesman estimated the crowd at 35,000 people.

Schools, hospitals, ferries and government services shut down in the first walkout since February. Shops were scheduled to close from 3 p.m. to let staff take part in demonstrations. Public transportation was set to operate until 9 p.m. to allow protesters to attend rallies in Athens city center. A three-hour walkout by air traffic controllers was expected to disrupt flights around the country.

"The strike marks the beginning of what is likely to be a tough time for Samaras as demonstrations and industrial action heighten in the weeks ahead," said Wolfango Piccoli, an economist at Eurasia Group in London. "Samaras should be mainly concerned about how much time he has left to tackle all these interrelated challenges."

The shutdowns, called to protest the cuts to benefits, wages and pensions that will form the bulk of a $14.8 billion austerity package, come as speculation swirls anew about Greece's finances. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said Monday that the financing gap won't be solved by the savings because a weak economy and delayed asset-sales worsened Greece's finances.

In Spain, meanwhile, protesters marched for a second night in Madrid, calling on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to reverse austerity measures as his nine-month-old government prepared its fifth package of budget cuts. Thousands demonstrated near Parliament, the same site where police detained and clashed with protesters the night before.

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