Nearly 300 immigrants in Greece ended their six-week hunger strike Wednesday after reaching a compromise with the government to delay deportation proceedings against them, supporters of the protest said.
The hunger strike emerged as a crisis for the government as the number of people hospitalized steadily increased. It ended following a meeting with government ministers, who granted the mostly North African hunger strikers temporary permission to remain in Greece, said Thanassis Karabelis, a prominent campaigner for the protesters.
More than 100 of the protesters have been hospitalized since the strike started in Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki on Jan. 25.
"This is a victory _ a victory for the hunger strikers," Karabelis told The Associated Press. "We will start giving the protesters sustenance immediately. Instructions have also been given to our volunteers at hospitals to do the same, so that the patients there can start receiving soup."
Protesters, many who camped for weeks in tents outside a building in central Athens where the hunger strikers were housed, broke out in celebration after the decision was announced.
Under the deal, authorities will suspend the immigrants' deportation orders, and the suspensions will be renewable every six months following review.
"These people are still subject to deportation. But this deportation has been delayed for humanitarian reasons," Deputy Labor Minister Anna Dalara said.
The migrants will also be allowed to work in Greece legally and to visit their home countries, Ilias Chronopoulos, one of the protest campaigners, told AP Television News.
Greece is the European Union's busiest transit point for illegal immigrants and the Socialist government has promised to take a tougher line against people traffickers. But the country's serious economic crisis has made it harder for thousands of migrants to find regular work and maintain their residence-permit obligations.
"Unfortunately, the capability of Greek society and of the Greek economy to accept more migrants has been long exhausted," Interior Minister Yannis Ragousis said after his meeting with the hunger strikers earlier Wednesday.
Government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis said the government had successfully dealt with "a serious issue with unforeseeable ramifications."
"From the outset, the government made it clear to everyone that there would be no mass legalizations for any reason, that it would not submit to blackmail, and that the law would be upheld," he said. "And that is what happened."
A spokesman for the protesters, Abdul Hadji, described the outcome as "a victory for all the working class."
"I don't think this will lead to other hunger strikes. But there are other campaigns that are needed for those people living in Greece without legal papers," he told Greek state television.
The opposition conservative party, however, said the government decision was a "total humiliation."
Earlier Wednesday, a public prosecutor had instructed state hospital doctors to take "all necessary medical action" to prevent hunger strikers in their care from dying.
In a document circulated to public health authorities, chief Athens prosecutor Eleni Raikou said hospital doctors legal priority is to prevent the loss off life, even if patients do not wish to receive sustenance.
Two women were arrested on Tuesday following allegations by a hospital doctor that they had prevented staff from supplying hunger strikers with food.
They have been charged with assault and are due to go on trial Friday.
Elena Becatoros and Olimpiu Gheorghiu contributed from Athens.