Long queues at forecourts as motorists try to beat fuel blockade

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The Independent Online

The army has been put on stand-by to prevent supermarkets being closed by blockades by fuel protesters, as retailers last night appealed for motorists not to panic-buy.

Texaco, which runs 1,100 service stations said business was "brisk". Stations in Birmingham said they had run out of unleaded fuel. Police in Merseyside complained that motorists were calling 999 to find out where they could buy petrol.

Lengthy queues were reported across the country. Ray Holloway director ]of the Petrol Retailers Association, said: "I really do appeal to people to actually just buy fuel when they need it. If people really do buy in the normal way, fuel will be available on the forecourts when they need it."

Ministers said they are taking seriously the threat of refinery blockades by the fuel protesters over the price of petrol hitting £1 a litre. Campaigners who are planning to disrupt traffic with a go-slow on the M4 tomorrow yesterday said the port of Dover could also be targeted.

Alan Johnson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, who is taking the lead on the issue with Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will today report on contingency plans before Tony Blair leaves for the UN summit in New York.

"We cannot have food and petrol being blockaded, and the public understand that," a senior ministerial source said. "We are quite serious about this. Unlike the last time we had the fuel protests, many petrol stations have closed and the supermarkets are a much more important factor. We won't let them close."

The army plans to use heavy vehicles to remove blockading lorries and ministers will be told anti-terror laws could be used to stop the country being held to ransom by the protesters.

Gordon Brown will today also repeat calls he made at the weekend meeting of the OPEC oil-producing countries, for them to raise production to stabilise the world market.

The Chancellor will tell the TUC: "It is because we understand the problems faced by hauliers, farmers and motorists at a time of doubling oil prices ... that the first action we must take is to tackle the cause of the problem: ensuring concerted global action is taken to bring down world oil prices and stabilise the market for the long term"

Friends of the Earth, however, urged Mr Brown to resist pressure to cut prices at the pumps. "He should say that climate change is driving our agenda," it said.

Mr Brown has signalled that he will continue to freeze fuel duty in the pre-Budget report in November, but he is refusing to cut fuel duty to offset price increases blamed on Hurricane Katrina.

Andrew Spence, a farmer and spokesman for the Fuel Lobby, which is planning the protests, said he was forced to join a queue for fuel yesterday. He blamed panic buying on the Government for reports that the ministers were ready to introduce rationing as part of its contingency plans.

The Fuel Lobby is calling on the public to "attend'"oil refineries from 6am tomorrow to begin their protests. "We are not calling for a blockade but if oil companies decide they cannot send out lorries while there is a public presence at their site, then that is a matter for them," Mr Spence said.

Mr Holloway said, however: "Whilst I would accept that yesterday was a robust day's trading, we don't believe that we are seeing anything which equates to 2000 [during the latest major fuel-price protests]."

Alan Duncan, the Conservative spokesman on transport and a former oil trader, said he had enormous sympathy for the protesters but he added: "I would not support any disruption caused by such protests.

"It's a pity they have to resort to such things just to make Gordon Brown understand a little bit more about the oil business."

The leaders of the protests

ANDREW SPENCE, Farmer and haulier from Consett, Co Durham

Played a part in the last protest in 2000 and still a leading light in the People's Fuel Lobby (PFL), which plans blockades from 6am tomorrow.The website run by PFL is at the heart of the protests.

ALAN GREENE, Haulier from Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire.

He coordinates the South Wales Hauliers' Association, which intends to blockade the M4 on Friday. The convoy may also decide to show its strength outside a Tesco distribution depot in Magor.

PAUL REYNOLDS, Farmer and agricultural contractor in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Group treasurer of the Farmers for Action group, which shares PFL frustration. "If every farmer in the country took a week's holiday, the country would be brought to its knees in 24 hours."

RICHARD HADDOCK, Beef farmer from Plymouth.

Led protests at refineries in Plymouth five years ago but this time says it is his intention to protest at every filling station in the region at the start of the Labour Party conference on 25 September.

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