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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Greek unions launched an anti-austerity general strike Wednesday that halted trains and island ferries while disrupting state hospitals and other public services. Thousands of protesters marched through central Athens in the first of two planned demonstrations.

The 24-hour strike also caused public transport disruptions in Athens, where the metro station in the city's central Syntagma Square outside Parliament was shut down for the protest marches.

Police said at least 6,000 people participated in the initial demonstration, carrying banners and chanting anti-austerity slogans. Hundreds more were gathering in another central Athens square ahead of a second march.

Unions say they are seeking an end to the painful savings policies that successive governments imposed to secure international bailout loans after Greece nearly went bankrupt in 2010.

"Today's strike is being held for the working class to respond decisively ... to the measures the government is deciding against workers' rights, to the problems of poverty, unemployment, the abolition of collective wage agreements," said Giorgos Pondikos, a member of the communist party-linked PAME union who was among the protesters.

The repeated income cuts and tax hikes deepened a six-year recession, while unemployment has reached a record 28 percent.

But signs are emerging that things are slowly improving, with the economy expected to return to growth this year and the government planning a return to capital markets for the first time in four years.