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BUENOS AIRES, April 6 (Reuters) - Argentines protesting against government austerity measures and demanding higher wages brought the country to a standstill on Thursday as labor unions challenged President Mauricio Macri in the first general strike since he took office 16 months ago.
Truck and bus drivers, teachers, factory workers, airport employees and the government customs agents who run Argentina's all-important grains export sector walked off the job at midnight for 24 hours.
Security forces pushed back and forth with picketers who had blocked the Pan-American Highway, the main road leading from the north to capital city Buenos Aires, where normally bustling streets were half-empty and businesses were closed.
Marches were held around the country, with picketers carrying signs and shouting.
"No customs officials are here, so there will be no exports or imports today," said Guillermo Wade, manager of the maritime chamber at Argentina's main grain hub of Rosario. The country is the world's top exporter of soymeal livestock feed and the third-largest supplier of soybeans.
Macri, a proponent of free markets, took office in December 2015. He eliminated currency and trade controls and cut government spending, including gas subsidies, a move that sparked steep increases in home heating bills.
Protesters are also clamoring for wage increases in line with inflation, which was clocked at 40 percent last year and is expected at about 20 percent 2017.
"The situation is dramatic," Julio Piumato, a spokesman for labor umbrella group CGT, said in a telephone interview.
"Wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few at the same rate that poverty is growing," he said. "Urgent measures are needed to create employment. One out of every three Argentines is poor."
A poll last month showed that for the first time since Macri took office, more Argentines disapprove than approve of his performance.
He was elected after more than a decade of populist rule left Argentina with rampant inflation, dwindling central bank reserves and a wide fiscal deficit. (Additonal reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)