Petrol protests spread across European cities

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The Independent Online

Protests snarled traffic in cities across Europe today as public anger at the high price of fuel intensified.

Protests snarled traffic in cities across Europe today as public anger at the high price of fuel intensified.

Belgian truckers blocked depots and highways across the country and clogged traffic in Brussels and Liege.

Smaller protests were also reported in Germany and even France, whose government made concessions to the strikers over the weekend.

In Belgium, talks between government ministers and truckers bogged today as protests expanded across the country to include border points and major freeways in the north and south of the country. Hopes that both sides had reached a deal this morning were dashed after Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt refused trucker demands for a fuel-tax rebate for the trucking industry.

Verhofstadt, who met several truck union leaders today, urged them to end the protest blockades which has now entered its fourth day.

A broader compensation package deal, which included improvements in social security benefits seemed imminent last night but was conditional on truckers clearing up their barricades across the country.

Belgian Transport Minister, Isabelle Durant said Wednesday that she expected blockades to come down.

"We hope to start with these procedures during the day," she said on RTBF television.

But at midday, truckers had made no move to clear up the blockades.

The European Union warned the Belgian government last night to work toward clearing main transit routes to ensure the free movement of goods and services which have been hampered during the four-day protest which has left many parts of the capital city of Brussels and surrounding areas paralyzed.

Drivers, using their trucks as roadblocks have sealed off various parts of the city, including the main road link between downtown and the EU headquarters.

The city's public transport authority has put on extra subway cars and buses to cope with increased demand.

The EU's executive office has asked Belgian authorities to provide alternative routes to those wanting to travel or transport goods to and from neighboring France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Yestersday drivers moved to block the main freeway to Luxembourg, near southeastern Arlon and the highway from Brussels to the northern French city of Lille was also blocked on the border, preventing any shipments from moving in or out of the country.

Points on the German border have also been targeted, as well as the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Liege.

The strike-action has also included taxi drivers in the capital city, many of which have joined the protest.

Trucker unions have asked the Belgian government for a fuel-tax rebate for the trucking industry, but talks to resolve the protests have not made any progress as both sides remain far apart.

Belgians have so far supported the blockade action, opting to take public transport or walking to work instead of using their cars, but many motorists filled up in anticipation of shortages.

The country's largest two Dutch and French-speaking trucker unions have warned that if the government does not give in to their demands for lower fuel taxes, they would bring the entire country to a standstill by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, farmers and truckrs blocked roads in northern Germand today just hours before Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was due to give a speech to a business group. Protest leaders planned to hand Schroeder a note urging him to take action against high fuel prices that have set off massive demonstrations across Europe.

In Schwerin, a city of 130,000, the protesters closed off major thoroughfares with trucks and tractors starting about noon.

Schroeder was to address local business leaders in Mecklenburg-Eastern Pomerania state capital later today.

Earlier, he rejected mounting calls for a repeal of fuel taxes imposed by his government to help fund the nation's social security system. In a speech to parliament in Berlin, Schroeder insisted he would not bow to "coercion" from the streets.

In Munich, protesters drove about two dozen tractors, busses and trucks to the local headquarters of Germany's governing parties, the Social Democrats and Greens, to demand lower fuel taxes. Demonstrators carried banners reading "Stop the ripoff" and "Down with the oil tax." In Berlin, taxi companies said they were considering adding a surcharge to fares because of the high gasoline prices.

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