France may send in troops to end protest

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The Independent Online

The French government hinted yesterday that it was prepared to use troops and police to free the country's oil supplies from a crippling four-day barricade by trucks, tractors, taxis and ambulances.

The French government hinted yesterday that it was prepared to use troops and police to free the country's oil supplies from a crippling four-day barricade by trucks, tractors, taxis and ambulances.

Although tough state action of this kind is rare in France, it would not be unprecedented. Special army tanks for obstacle clearing were used to lift a siege of oil refineries by hauliers in 1992.

The veiled warning by French ministers came as truck-owners', taxi-drivers' and farmers' protests against high oil prices brought tempers to boiling point and large parts of France to a near standstill. The European Commission demanded assurances from the French government within 24 hours that it was doing everything possible to maintain free trade and movement within Europe.

British motorists briefly barricaded one carriageway of the A16 motorway near Calais yesterday in retaliation for a partial blockade of the Channel Tunnel freight terminal. Although the car entrance to the tunnel shuttle, and another freight entrance, were kept open by French police, the British drivers grew tired of delays imposed by the farmers' barricade.

They briefly parked their vehicles across the other carriageway of the motorway, blocking traffic heading in the other direction.

Although there was no direct threat of intervention by the French government to end the four-day refinery blockade, the justice, interior and defence ministers all made strong statements yesterday warning that France could no longer be "held to ransom". The Defence Minister, Alain Richard, said the blockade could pose a threat not just to the economy butto the "security" of the French nation. That comment was widely interpreted as a justification for intervention by the army and gendarmerie, both of which come under Mr Richard's control.

Four-fifths of the petrol stations in France were estimated by oil companies last night to be out of fuel or likely to have exhausted supplies today.

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