Helicopter-borne police commandos fought a pitched battle with militant strikers at an ailing South Korean automaker today, seizing all but one key building at its chaotic factory and increasing pressure on hundreds of protesters to give up.
The dramatic raid at Ssangyong Motor Co.'s Pyeongtaek factory came after commandos overran other buildings the day before in an effort to end a standoff that has threatened South Korea's fifth-largest automaker with insolvency.
Ssangyong has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February amid falling sales and mounting red ink. Troubles have deepened in the past two months with hundreds of dismissed workers occupying the factory's paint shop — said to be packed with flammable materials such as thinner— to protest massive layoffs.
Commandos stormed the roof of one of the factory's two paint shops by descending from a black shipping container carried by a helicopter. Some others rappelled down a rope from another helicopter.
Helmet-wearing workers fought back with sticks and threw objects at the shield-wielding police. Commandos also fired water cannon from the container as it was suspended above the roof.
A Gyeonggi provincial police officer said about 100 commandos stormed the roof while another 300 riot police launched an assault on the paint shop with ladders.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with office policy, said police had secured one of the buildings. He said protesters fled and two were injured as they tried to escape down ladders. YTN television reported that about 30 people on both sides suffered injuries.
Meanwhile, an association of auto parts suppliers comprising 600 companies to which Ssangyong owes about 300 billion won ($245 million), filed a court petition Wednesday to call for the carmaker's liquidation.
Wednesday's raid still left hundreds of protesters in one of the paint shop buildings, with police taking control of the rest of the compound in the city of Pyeongtaek, some 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Seoul. Up to 500 people were still inside the facility, said Lee Won-muk, a Ssangyong spokesman.
National Police Agency chief Kang Hee-rak said police will "take some time to think about going in there" in hopes that the company's union and management will reach a compromise on the dispute.
But Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency chief Cho Hyun-oh later warned "there appears to be not much time left" and urged remaining strikers to give up by Thursday, suggesting that a raid on the last-remaining facility could come earlier than expected.
The flammable materials inside the paint shop have raised fears of an inferno if there is a full-blown police assault — which seems to have weighed heavily on police willingness to move in.
Union spokesman Lee Chang-kun said Tuesday that a police assault on the paint shop would be deadly.
"We will respond to it, bracing ourselves for death," he said.
Ssangyong's restructuring plan calls for the shedding of 2,646 workers, or 36 percent of the work force. Some 1,670 have left the company voluntarily but nearly 1,000 opposed the move.
Talks last week to end the occupation broke off Sunday, with management threatening to take steps toward liquidation unless the union accepted a compromise offer on layoffs.
The company offered to keep more workers than before in a compromise proposal, but the union insisted on no layoffs.
The unrest has cost Ssangyong over 300 billion won ($246 million) in lost production since it began, according to the company.
The court overseeing Ssangyong's bankruptcy is unlikely to accept the liquidation petition from parts suppliers but the move could affect its decision on whether to approve a corporate survival plan that Ssangyong is required to submit by Sept. 15, Yonhap news agency said.
Ssangyong, which mostly manufactures light SUVs and a luxury sedan, is majority-owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., one of China's largest vehicle manufacturers, though it lost management control amid the bankruptcy protection process.