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Belgium grinds to halt amid strike

A general strike has paralysed Belgium's air and rail traffic and stopped scores of companies working as trade unions capped a month of labour action against government austerity policies.

The strike targeted measures by the nation's business-friendly government to cut into employees' income, extend working time and restrict social services. They also protest the lack of additional capital gains taxes.

"We have not been heard so far," said Socialist trade union leader Rudi De Leeuw. There is talk of extending labour action into the new year, but concrete measures have yet to be put forward.

The strike had an immediate international impact since Brussels Airport, a busy hub with connections throughout Europe and beyond, had no traffic whatsoever. High-speed rail links to London and France and the Netherlands were also scrapped for the day.

The series of labour actions, the toughest in years, started last month with a demonstration that drew some 120,000 protesters.

Airport spokeswoman Florence Muls said some 600 flights have been cancelled, affecting 50,000 passengers. Going with the Thalys or Eurostar trains was no option either since the whole rail network was paralysed.

Almost all activity at Antwerp port was also stopped for the day.

From early morning, striking workers started small fires at entrances to factories throughout the nation, discouraging people from working. Some small and medium sized businesses were able to operate normally.

Since regional strike action had already affected highways into the capital Brussels and major cities for the past three weeks, workers took the general strike in stride.

Masses worked from home and the expected traffic jams during the morning rush hour did not materialise.

Other EU nations also face labour action protesting measures that are widely seen as undercutting the vestiges of Europe's famed welfare state.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in several Italian cities last Friday to protest against economic reforms that they say erode their social rights.

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