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Public Transport Halts, Offices Close Amid General Strike in Italy


In Italy, public transport ground to a halt, and public offices shut down as workers staged the sixth general strike in Italy since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government came to power in 2001.

Workers walked off their jobs for four hours across Italy at different times of the day. Public transport ground to a halt, banks, post offices and public offices closed down, and hospitals guaranteed only emergency services.

National carrier Alitalia canceled 230 flights.

Friday's was the sixth general strike since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government came to power in 2001. This time it was to protest the government's budget for 2006.

The leader of one of the three major trade unions that called the strike, Guglielmo Epifani, says this budget is full of cuts, and does not resolve the country's problems.

He says resources are being cut for the health sector, for education, research and for universities.

Thousands of Italians took to the streets in Rome, Milan and Palermo. This young demonstrator summed up the feelings of many who took part in the rallies.

"We are here because this budget hurts above all workers, the weaker social sectors and young people," he said.

In Rome, protesters waving flags and placards, gathered in the central Piazza Navona, after marching through the city center. Walking with them, opposition leader Piero Fassino complained that this government's economic policies have blocked the country's growth, and made the livelihood of millions of Italians precarious.

"This day gives voice to the unhappiness and malaise of millions of Italians because of an economic situation, which we all know is critical and this is the government's responsibility," said Mr. Fassino.

The center-right government has been struggling to contain its budget deficit. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dismissed the protest.

"It's an absolutely useless strike," said Mr. Berlusconi, "which is part of a stale rite that has no useful effect."

Since Mr. Berlusconi took office, work stoppages have been held to protest tax cuts that unions said would only benefit the rich, and reforms of the labor market and pensions.

General elections are scheduled in Italy early next year, and the center-left opposition has been pointing to the strikes to highlight what they say has been bad governance on the part of Mr. Berlusconi's government.

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