Dozens arrested in fuel strike crackdown

Spain got tough today with striking truckers who have disrupted food and fuel supplies, deploying riot police to lift blockades of a border crossing with France and a major highway outside Madrid, and making dozens of arrests.

But unions representing the strikers vowed to press on, rejecting a package of measures presented by the government to end the three-day nationwide protests over rising fuel prices.

One striker died yesterday when a van drove through a picket line, and a protester died in a similar incident in neighbouring Portugal, which has been hit by the same kind of strike since Monday.

One of the Spanish industries hit hardest by the strike – car manufacturing - warned that if the stoppage continued, the entire industry and its daily production of 13,000 vehicles would grind to a halt tomorrow because parts for assembly were not reaching factories.

The strike is being waged by self-employed drivers, who represent an estimated 20% of Spain’s 380,000-vehicle trucking industry. They say big companies can cope better with fuel price increases by lowering their hauling rates to land more jobs.

The independent drivers are demanding a minimum, guaranteed rate for their services. The Socialist government refuses, saying that would interfere with free-market competition.

Spanish truck drivers say their diesel costs have risen 36% in a year.

Spanish fishermen have been on strike since May 30, also over fuel costs, and this is compounding problems getting fish supplies to consumers.

Today, the National Federation of Fishermen, representing mostly small boat owners, announced it was returning to work because it could not maintain the strike. The bigger fishing boat owners, however, are to continue their near two-week-old stoppage.

Meanwhile, many Spaniards watched in awe and frustration as a small sector of the truck industry began to bring the country to its knees. Some filling stations in Madrid and Catalonia have run dry, supermarkets are reporting panic-buying and roads around the country have been clogged by slow-moving or parked trucks.

Radio talk shows and cartoons in conservative newspapers are full of digs at the government for letting things get out of hand.

“There has been a certain feeling that we were not doing much,” Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said today. “We are doing a lot.”

Riot police intervened this morning at La Junquera, Spain’s main border crossing with France, and removed picketers who had been blocking roads since the strike started. Riot police in Madrid cleared a major road leading into the Spanish capital, Mr Perez Rubalcaba said.

The intervention was peaceful in La Junquera, but in Madrid police arrested 34 strikers, the minister said. All told, 51 people have been arrested since the strike started, and police vehicles have escorted nearly 3,000 trucks transporting food, fuel and other goods, he said.

“There is a constitutional right to strike. There is no constitutional right to disrupt people’s lives,” Mr Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference.

“Therefore, we are going to continue acting with maximum force and maximum firmness against those who would seek to disturb the public order,” the minister said.

Fire destroyed four trucks and damaged a fifth at an industrial park near the eastern city of Alicante before dawn today. Officials said they did not rule out the possibility that the fire was set deliberately. A driver who was sleeping in his vehicle when it caught fire suffered serious burns.

In related incidents, at least 50 people, nearly half of them police officers, were slightly injured in clashes during a fishermen’s demonstration in Seville and one involving farmers in Almeria.

The Spanish government agreed last night with a large, non-striking trucking union on a package of tax relief and other measures to help the industry. The package was presented today to three unions representing the strikers, but they rejected it, said Julio Villaescusa, president of one those unions, Fenadismer.

In Portugal – where fuel pumps were nearly empty and supermarkets warned that some produce stocks were low – the truckers want the government to subsidise fuel prices for transport companies.

Long lines formed at filling stations across Portugal as Transport Minister Mario Lino and road transport companies tried to negotiate an end to the crisis.

Lisbon airport stopped refuelling planes, although no flights were cancelled. Officials said the airport had only a reserve of jet fuel for emergency and military flights.

The Confederation of Portuguese Farmers said its members would have to throw away 2.5 million litres (660,000 gallons) of fresh milk by the end of the day unless the protest ended because they had run out of storage capacity.

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