Protest cripples Siberian railway

THE new government of Boris Yeltsin is facing its most severe challenge so far as industrial protests ripple across Russia, led by the coal miners, who have cut the country in half by blocking the Trans-Siberian railway.

Hundreds of trains were at a halt in different parts of the country yesterday as angry miners - whose industrial muscle helped oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power in 1991 - sat on the tracks in a protest against six-month pay delays and sweeping pit closures.

The government, led by the recently appointed 35-year-old Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, has set up an emergency centre in Moscow, solely devoted to dealing with the miners' protest. Yesterday he met with trade union leaders and emphasised the need for a negotiated solution.

Industrial protests are common in Russia as it grapples with the transition to a market economy but the latest are attracting more attention than most. The Railways Ministry said 296 freight trains and 120 passenger trains were held up in three main areas - the south near Rostov, the line to Vorkuta in the Arctic, and around the Kemerovo region in Siberia.

In the latter, the governor, Aman Tuleyev, declared a state of emergency in the Kuzbass coalfield because all rail access to the area was cut off. He warned that some stranded trains carried chemicals and explosives.

Protests have been bubbling away for some time. Several months ago, Siberian miners took their bosses hostage. The protests have gained momentum in recent days, widening to include teachers, who marched in Moscow yesterday, and students in St Petersburg. Doctors, pensioners, scientists and teachers have joined miners on their sit-ins.

The most publicised protest has been on the Trans-Siberian, the world's longest railway line, at Prokopyevsk in Kemerovo, half-way between Russia's Pacific and Baltic coasts. Yesterday protesters cut off a track that had been used to bypass sit-ins, closing down the line altogether, severing Russia's east-west rail artery.

Earlier this month Boris Yeltsin pledged to ensure that all the miners would be paid. But he has been burdened by a tranche of economic problems. The government maintains a large part of the problem is the failure - or inability - of commercial clients to pay the mines for their coal.