By DEREK GATOPOULOS and NICHOLAS PAPHITISAssociated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) - More than 10,000 protesters rallied outside Greece's public broadcasting headquarters Thursday in support of fired staff, who for a third day occupied the building to continue broadcasts in defiance of the government.
Unions staged a general strike against the closure of Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, which has divided the fragile coalition government and raised the possibility of early elections that could endanger the country's bailout program.
Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called a meeting Monday with center-left coalition partners who are demanding that ERT be reopened.
"We are totally against seeing television screens going dark and we side with the overwhelming majority of the Greek people," Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the Socialist Pasok party and coalition partner, told parliament.
"The country does not need an election, but Pasok does not fear elections ... To think it does would be a major mistake."
The government pulled ERT off the air late Tuesday, axing all 2,656 jobs as part of its cost-cutting drive demanded by international creditors. Samaras insisted the broadcaster will remain closed before a new public broadcaster opens at the end of the summer. But Pasok and Democratic Left, the other junior partner, submitted legislation to parliament to cancel ERT's closure.
The conservative party, which holds most of the government posts, defended the decision to shut down the broadcaster.
"There have been more strikes at ERT in recent months that anywhere else ... They are acting in a socially irresponsible way," conservative lawmaker Adonis Georgiadis said. "We are not ending public television. We are making it better."
The crisis was the worst in Samaras' year-old government, which is credited rescuing Greece's euro membership by imposing harsh austerity and reform measures demanded by the country's international creditors.
But now the coalition's center-left partners are threatening to block the ERT closure, the government faces the risk of breaking up and calling an early general election - a process that could disrupt the austerity process and threaten future bailout payments.
Cooperation between Samaras' conservatives and his partners has come under increased strain this year as unemployment continues to worsen and after the government ended several strikes by using emergency powers normally reserved for mobilizing resources in natural disasters.
Greek unemployment swelled to 27.4 percent in the first quarter of the year, the highest level since regular jobless figures were published in 1998, the state statistics agency reported Thursday.
Greece is under pressure to fire civil servants as part of its commitments to bailout lenders - other members of the 17-strong club of European Union countries that use the euro and the International Monetary Fund - who have provided some 200 billion euros ($265.5 billion) in emergency funding since 2010.
Thursday's protest called by Greece's two largest unions disrupted public transport and left state hospitals running on skeleton staff, while flights were grounded between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. (1200-1400GMT).
Similar rallies were held around Greece, including Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city, where 7,500 gathered, according to police estimates.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union, representing Europe's public TV channels, began streaming online broadcasts by fired ERT staff, while the many Greek news websites also carried the live stream. The signal was also being aired on a channel run by the Greek Communist Party.
"We ask that viewers regularly reset their televisions. They are taking down the signal. But we also have our ways of getting back up," said Panagiotis Kalfayiannis, leader of the National Federation of Personnel at Greek Radio and Television.
Shares on the Athens Stock Exchange recovered from heavy losses earlier this week, edging up 0.4 percent. But the interest rate on the government's 10-year bonds, which had been sliding steadily, rose back above 10 percent.
AP writer Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.
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