Striking miners lay siege to Bonn

Striking miners took their protest against the threat of pit closures to Bonn yesterday, blocking roads and laying siege to the headquarters of the governing parties.

On the third day of demonstrations against proposed cuts in the coal subsidy, hundreds of miners on motorcycles barricaded the main road leading to Bonn's government quarter.

Tens of thousands took to the streets in the Ruhr and in Saarland, occupying town halls, marching down motorways, and pelting politicians with eggs. In Saarbrucken, a demonstration by 20,000 people cut the autobahn between Germany and Luxembourg.

In front of the Bonn offices of the Free Democratic Party, the free-marketeers in Helmut Kohl's coalition government, hundreds of demonstrators shackled themselves together. "We are in chains today - who will be wearing them tomorrow?" asked a banner.

Last week, the government announced plans gradually to reduce the annual coal subsidy, currently DM10bn, (pounds 3.7bn) to DM5.4bn by the year 2005. A larger portion of public support is to come in future from the two coal- mining Lander, Saarland and North Rhine Westphalia. The unions fear 10 pits will have to close as a result, putting 50,000 miners and 70,000 others out of their jobs.

"I have a daughter and a son," said Josef Skorupa, 43, a miner who had travelled from Gladbeck in the Ruhr to Bonn to vent his fury. "What future will they have if the coal industry disappears?"

The last colliery in his home town has already been shut, and the second biggest job provider, Siemens, has recently moved away. "Mining is a lousy job," Mr Skorupa says, "but there is nothing else".

The miners are bitter, but their protests have been peaceful. "We are not going to make the mistake of turning violent, like the French and British miners," says Mr Skorupa. "We are throwing eggs, not stones."

Another round of talks between Chancellor Kohl and the trade unions is expected today. The gap between the government's proposal and what the miners expect is only DM2bn over the next three years, but the two sides seem in no mood to compromise.

The stakes were raised at the weekend by the opposition Social Democrats. They demonstrated solidarity with the miners by walking out of planned discussions about tax reform. The SPD accepts coal subsidies need to be reduced, but finds the cuts excessive.

Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD leader and prime minister of Saarland, was particularly incensed by the government's manoeuvre to shift some of the remaining costs to coal-minding Lander, both of which are run by Social Democrats.

Mr Lafontaine was in the middle of negotiations with Mr Kohl about tax reforms and public sector cuts as the latest crisis broke. His party has a blocking vote in the upper chamber of parliament. If he cannot be persuaded to return to the table, the government's reforms could be paralysed.

In Berlin, about 5,000 building workers staged sit-ins in Potsdamer Platz, Europe's biggest building site, to highlight the fact that 300,000 of its members face the dole by the end of the century.