Striking Greek workers have brought the Athens metro to a standstill and kept ferries docked in protest against austerity measures, as the country's lenders visited the capital to try to avert a debt default.
Officials from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank were in Athens on Tuesday as part of efforts to put together a 130bn euro ($166bn) rescue package that Greece needs to stay afloat when a major bond redemption becomes due in late March.
Greeks have been hit hard by tax raises and wage cuts meant to put the Mediterranean nation's finances back on track with a first bailout agreed in 2010.
Greece has entered its fifth consecutive year of austerity-fuelled recession, with unemployment reaching a record high of 17.7 per cent.
No ferries left from Athens' main ports on Tuesday, buses will only work part of the day, while bank employees are also expected to walk off the job and labour unions will stage rallies to coincide with the start of the EU/IMF visit.
"We demand that austerity policies are abandoned and that the legislation that crushes our labour and insurance rights and turns workers into slaves is abolished," the EKA labour union, which represents workers in Athens, said in a statement.
The visit by the so-called "troika" of lenders is closely linked with Athens' efforts to agree with banks on a deal to slash its debt of over 350 billion euros by 100 billion euros.
Without the so-called "PSI" deal, which would see creditors voluntarily giving up a lot of their promised returns, the EU and IMF have warned they will consider that Athens' debt is not on a sustainable track and will not release further aid.
The EU/IMF bailout plan would include money to recapitalise Greek banks, which hold a big chunk of their country's debt.
One diplomat said: "If the PSI is successful you will need transfusion for the Greek banks, and for that you need money from the bailout plan."
Involving private sector investors in resolving Greece's debt crisis poses a tough challenge but one that can be mastered, said Ewald Nowotny, a member of the ECB governing council.
"This is indeed a very difficult operation. I hope that all participants will understand the responsibility they have," he told a panel discussion on Tuesday, saying the Greek government had to take the first steps to put its finances in order.
But he added: "It is a problem that, with a cool head, can be resolved."
Athens is running out of time and needs an agreement with banks within days to avoid going bankrupt when 14.5bn euros of bond redemptions fall due on March 20.
But talks broke down on Friday over the interest rate on new bonds Greece will offer and a plan to enforce investor losses.
Negotiations were suspended until Wednesday, and Athens sent senior officials to Washington to consult with the IMF.
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|Denis G. Rancourt|