French and Italian fishermen take fuel protest to Brussels

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Police sealed off parts of the European Union district of Brussels today as hundreds of fishermen demonstrated against the soaring price of fuel.

The fishermen, mostly from France and Italy, occupied one of the district's main artery roads and set off flares close to barricades where police lined up in riot gear and gas masks.

"There are a few hundred of them but more are coming," police spokesman Christian de Coninck said.

French fishermen say they will go bust unless they obtain discounted diesel at €0.40 ($0.62) per litre as opposed to €0.80 on the market. The price of marine diesel has surged by 30 per cent in the past four months. They also want the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to intervene by raising the amount of financial aid that a government may grant to its fisheries sector without attracting the scrutiny of EU internal market regulators.

"We are here because every time we ask our own government ... they tell us it's Brussels' fault. And so we have come to Brussels," French fisherman Alain Rico told Reuters Television.

A handful of demonstrators met the chief political adviser to EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg, who was not himself in Brussels, and explained their grievances.

"The Commission is acutely aware that this is a crisis for the sector that is real, immediate and requires action," Patrick Tabone said at the entrance to the Commission's headquarters.

"The big problem is that the cause of it, which is high oil prices, is something that we are all having to live with ... we are all trying to understand it, to adjust to it and to find the proper European response, not just in fisheries."

EU leaders will discuss the impact of high oil prices on Europe's fisheries sector at a summit in mid-June, he said. The sector also suffered from overcapacity and badly needed to restructure, he said, to the jeers of the fishermen.

"It's a problem that is shared by all European fishermen so we came here united to ask Brussels to help us," said Italian fisherman Umberto Cogisnani.

The EU has strict rules about aid doled out by its member states to particular industries and companies that are designed to ensure governments grant assistance that does not give one sector in a particular country an unfair trade advantage.