Leaders refuse to bow to protesters' demands as demonstrations spread

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The Independent Online

Protests against soaring fuel prices may have subsided in Britain and Belgium, but were still threatening to engulf half a dozen European countries last night, from Germany and Sweden in the north to Greece and Spain on the Mediterreanean.

Protests against soaring fuel prices may have subsided in Britain and Belgium, but were still threatening to engulf half a dozen European countries last night, from Germany and Sweden in the north to Greece and Spain on the Mediterreanean.

In Germany, the northern city of Hanover, home town of the Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was partly paralysed by a 1,00- vehicle demonstration staged by truckers and farmers, and a major refinery at Lingen in the north-west of the country was briefly blockaded by 50 tractors.

Refusing to bow to the demands of industry, Mr Schröder has ruled out any reduction in his Red-Green government's "eco-tax" aimed at cutting fuel pollution, but has offered concessions to pensioners and welfare recipients especially hard hit by higher petrol and heating costs.

Almost everywhere the pattern was the same: governments mixing tough talk and limited concessions, pitted against road hauliers and farmers enjoying a good measure of public support. As in Britain, the best hopes of a let-up generally lay in the fear that prolonged disruption could put jobs and lives in danger.

In Belgium, the hardline truckers' union which had led the paralysing five-day protest targeting key roads, ports and oil depots, said yesterday that it would call off its action. Stefan Adriaens, president of the Professional Road Transport Union, said: "We'll lift our blockades at midnight tonight."

Two other transport unions had already accepted a BFr4bn (£60m) government package of fiscal and social measures to ease the burden of rising fuel costs - although there was no direct cut in fuel taxes.

The Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, had issued an ultimatum to truckers, telling them they must end their protest "within hours". In a television address Mr Verhofstadt warned that "the people's patience was at an end", and that "our economy and prosperity is in danger".

Trouble was also simmering in several other countries last night. In Ireland, motorists rushed to fill up ahead of a 24-hour stoppage by truck drivers due to start at midnight last night, in protest at the Dublin government's refusal to cut fuel taxes at once.

The Irish Road Haulage Association said drivers would run go-slow convoys on key national and urban routes, and called on all hauliers to impose a 10 per cent fuel surcharge on customers as a temporary measure to compensate for spiralling costs.

The Irish government has has said it will consider drivers' demands as it draws up the budget for 2001, due in December, but the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, warned hauliers that ministers could not entertain demands from individual groups without jeopardising the social partnership seen as a cornerstone of the country's recent economic success.

Demonstrations were spreading in Spain, too, where farmers were demanding an end to a 5p-a-litre special fuel tax and other concessions, and threatening to make protests elsewhere in Europe "look like childs' play" if their requests go unmet.

Motorways and city streets remained blocked in parts of the Netherlands, while signs were growing that action would spread to Poland, Greece and Sweden by the weekend.

Beyond Europe, there were warnings in Israel that anti-fuel tax protests might start in earnest on Sunday.

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