Protesters gather at start of general strike in Italy

Protesters gathered in the cold early Friday at the start of a general strike called to oppose the Italian government's 2006 budget and set to snarl transport and shut down offices across the country. The strike is the second such protest against a budget proposed by Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition, which has been struggling to contain its budget deficit amid sluggish economic growth.

Berlusconi's government faces general elections next year, with a vote expected in April. Post offices, banks and public offices were shut for all or part of the day for the strike, and school employees were scheduled to walk out for an hour.

Hospitals were guaranteeing only emergency services, and officials warned of possible delays even among motorists as highway tollbooth operators were also joining the walkout.

The hours of the strike varied across regions. In Rome, where demonstrators with flags and placards gathered for a march near the Circus Maximus, buses, trams and subways were stopped from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (0830-1230 GMT). Transport in Milan was scheduled to halt from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (1700-2100GMT).

Italy's national carrier Alitalia said it was canceling 230 flights, 105 national and 125 international, and trains and ferries were also expected to be canceled or delayed.

Italy's three main labor unions called the strike for Nov. 25 to protest the government's 2006 proposed budget, which includes some Ђ20 billion (US$23.4 billion) in spending cuts and revenue-raising measures to keep Italy's deficit in check.

Among the proposed measures are Ђ2 billion (US$2.34 billion) of cuts in the social security costs that companies pay on their work force. The government has already won a confidence vote in the Senate tied to the budget. The lower house is expected to vote next week on the budget, which must be approved before the end of the year, reports the AP. I.L.

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