Flights to and from Greece were grounded for four hours on Thursday and state hospitals operated with skeleton staff as air traffic controllers and doctors joined public sector workers in another nationwide strike against labour reforms and austerity measures.

Government offices, tax, municipality and judicial offices remained closed in protest against the pension and labour reforms while hospitals and ambulance services operated with emergency staff.

Air traffic controllers joined Thursday’s protest, halting flights to all Greek airports until noon.

Officials at Athens’ International Airport said 65 international and domestic flights were cancelled while another 131 had been rescheduled.

The strike is the seventh major protest since the government unveiled austerity measures to battle its budget—deficit crisis.

The reforms are part of an austerity package with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a 110— billion—euro (140—billion—dollar) bailout package.

As Parliament was set to approve changes to civil servants’ retirement rules later Thursday, nearly 2,000 people took to the streets in rallies in Athens and the northern port city of Thessaloniki.

On Wednesday night, hundreds of firefighters, police and coast guard officials held a peaceful protest in Athens against the pension reforms, which they say will increase their minimum retirement age to 60, from around 53.

The workers say it will become increasingly hard to carry out their job effectively at an older age.

Last week, lawmakers passed a sweeping pension reform bill that curbs early retirement and raises the retirement age to 65 for all. The ongoing strikes have hurt the country’s vital tourism industry which accounts for nearly a fifth of Greece’s economy, with hotel owners saying that the frequent strikes are affecting international bookings to resorts.

According to opinion polls, a large majority of Greeks oppose the pension reform.

Analysts question whether Athens will be able to enforce the tough measures because they have the potential of unleashing large—scale social unrest — more so than any other austerity decision.

Its success will depend on whether the government can maintain a tough stance on implementing all areas of the reform bill, which is likely to become more difficult as unemployment rises and the country falls deeper into recession, analysts said.

Greece’s unemployment rate rose to 11.9 per cent in April from 11.6 per cent in March, the country’s statistics agency said on Thursday. Unemployment was 9.4 per cent in April 2009.

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