Fuel starts to flow as British and Belgian protesters end blockades

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The Independent Online

Fuel-starved Britain was slowly getting back to normal today after most fuel-tax protesters called off their pickets of depots and refineries. But truck drivers in other European countries picked up the protest with demonstrations in the Netherlands and Spain.

Fuel-starved Britain was slowly getting back to normal today after most fuel-tax protesters called off their pickets of depots and refineries. But truck drivers in other European countries picked up the protest with demonstrations in the Netherlands and Spain.

In Britain, most of the pickets that have choked off the country's petrol supply over the past week had been removed by early Friday, and tankers were once again rolling to gas stations. Shell said 20 per cent of its pumps would be full by the weekend. But motorists were warned it would be several days, or even weeks, before gas pumps are full once again.

Queues of over two miles long were being reported as drivers took advantage of the easing in the crisis.

In Hampshire, drivers queuing for petrol at a Tesco store blocked tankers from leaving a fuel depot, said police.

They said the depot reached "crisis point" as snaking queues of cars stopped tankers from distributing petrol.

Spokeswoman Susan Rolling said the queues to buy petrol at a Tesco store in Bursledon, Southampton, were blocking access from the BP terminal in Hamble about two miles away.

Truck drivers in Belgium also began to lift their blockades of highways, fuel depots and city streets late Thursday.

But the protest which began when French drivers blockaded roads and won concessions last week showed no signs of coming to a quick end across Europe.

Some 1,200 truck drivers in Ireland began staging go-slow protests in Dublin and other cities on Friday morning, slowing traffic in the capital and congregating in large numbers at the Dublin and Rosslare ports. But police said most of the roads still remained "remarkably clear."

In the Netherlands, hundreds of truck and taxi drivers blocked roads and blew their horns outside government offices Friday, and halted early morning road traffic to Schipol Airport outside Amsterdam.

It was the largest demonstration yet in the Netherlands, with the national automobile association reporting some 31 blockades on highways leading to the country's largest cities, creating huge backlogs of traffic up to 8 miles long.

Europe's fuel protests also spread to Spain as horn-blaring trucks moving at a snail's pace clogged roads leading into Barcelona during the morning rush hour. Thousands of motorists were trapped on highways around Spain's second largest city. Protest action was also threatened in Hungary and Poland.

In Britain, protesters declared a moral victory as they abandoned their pickets and blockades.

"We have lost the battle but won the war," said Mark Greene, a protest organizer at the Milford Haven refinery in Wales.

Later, some picketers returned to the scenes of abandoned blockades, hoping to stop the tankers again. Protesters at Grangemouth refinery in Scotland restored their picket Thursday evening.

Military tankers were pressed into service to help relieve the backlog, but industry officials said it would take weeks to restore supplies.

"It's going to take us two to three weeks to get back to normal levels," said Ray Holloway of the Petrol Retailers Association.

The fuel crisis sparked a rash of panic buying, and some stores ran out of milk and bread. The Royal Mail said yesterday it was suspending Sunday collections to conserve fuel.

Some pubs reported they were in danger of running out of beer.

Conservative Party leader William Hague called on Prime Minister Tony Blair to apologize for his "woeful" handling of the crisis, and the prime minister's popularity appeared to have taken a hit.

A Gallup poll conducted during the fuel crisis and published Friday in the Daily Telegraph found a 7 per cent rise in those dissatisfied with Blair's performance, from 45 per cent to 52 per cent.

Pollsters interviewed 1,006 voters by telephone between September 6 and 12.

Blair promised to listen to protesters, but offered no concessions on the taxes which have made British fuel prices the highest in Europe. British truckers paid an average of 81.8 pence for a litre of diesel fuel last month, compared to 49.6 pence in Belgium, according to the AA.

"However much people may dislike paying petrol duty, there's no way that any government of this country could or should yield to this form of protest," he told his third nationally televised news conference in as many days.

After meeting oil executives, Blair announced the establishment of a task force, made up of government officials, oil executives and police officers, to examine ways of safeguarding Britain's fuel supply.

Belgian truck drivers began late Thursday to lift blockades that had choked traffic around the country for five days. Two of three protesting unions accepted a government offer of compensation for truckers hit by high world oil prices.

"It's an honorable compromise. The government has made an effort ... it's time to lift the road blocks," said Fred Evers, president of the FEBETRA union.

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