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More Countries Join European Fuel Price Protests
By Douglas Andrew
BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Truckers in Spain, Ireland and Poland joined Europe-wide protests against high petrol prices on Friday while Britain and Belgium struggled to recover from the paralyzing effects of days of fuel blockades.
Convoys of Spanish truckers and farmers joined forces to slow traffic on the main ring road around Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city, and farmers began similar action in Merida, in the western Extremadura agricultural region.
Others planned to picket the site of this weekend's Spanish-German summit in the city of Segovia, in central Spain.
In Ireland, thousands of truckers clogged major roads around five cities including the capital Dublin with a 24-hour go-slow protest after the government rejected their demand that it cut diesel fuel tax by a third. In Poland, columns of trucks driving below 18 mph snarled traffic in several larger cities, but police said the action was limited and failed to clog traffic.
Across Europe, government taxes make up the bulk of what drivers pay at the pump and add to the pain of crude oil prices, still at their highest in a decade.
Despite promises of higher output from the OPEC cartel, relief seemed a long way off amid a new surge driven by tension between Iraq and Kuwait and comments by President Clinton that he did not see high prices hurting the U.S. economy.
At around 1910 GMT, Brent blend November futures stood a hefty $1.61 higher at $33.90 a barrel, and U.S. crude futures hit their highest levels since the 1990/91 Gulf crisis.
Prices To Stay High
``I would be surprised to see a price decrease in the first half of winter, but after that anything can happen,'' Jeroen van der Veer, president of the Dutch arm of the Royal Dutch/Shell group, told reporters.
In the Netherlands, the government promised concrete measures as the largest protests to date stopped traffic across the country. Hundreds of trucks poured into The Hague as truckers took their anger to the heart of government. Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, preparing next week's 2001 budget, said government members would meet road hauliers' representatives on Saturday and would ``not come empty-handed,'' ANP news agency said.
German truckers caused traffic chaos for the fourth day running, jamming the northern city of Bremen, while opposition politicians launched a parliamentary bid to cut fuel taxes.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left government has so far resisted demands to suspend so-called ``eco-taxes'' which it started levying last year to cut fuel consumption and pollution.
But in Italy the government bowed to truckers' demands for new fuel discounts, averting the threat of protests.
Transport Minister Pierluigi Bersani and representatives of truckers' unions signed an accord in the early hours of the morning.
Angry independent truckers in top oil exporter Norway said they would block five oil terminals at key ports from Monday after Finance Minister Karl Eirik Schjoett-Pedersen gave no promises of fuel tax cuts in a meeting with truck owners.
``Norway shouldn't have this situation since we produce oil ourselves,'' said trucker Knut Enger, leader of the Car Owners' Interest Organization.
Relief For Britain
The illegal protest could mean that filling stations in parts of southern Norway run dry next week.
Norway shares some of the highest fuel prices in Europe with Britain, where a liter of unleaded petrol costs around 80 pence ($1.13), some three-quarters of that going in tax.
Britain's week-long blockade of refineries and depots ebbed on Thursday as companies began laying off workers and hospitals scaled down operations as staff failed to get to work.
Although the government offered no concessions, some truckers said they would resume their protests if no tax cuts were announced within 60 days.
On Friday, some supermarkets were still limiting customers to one loaf of bread and roads were still half-empty.
Some 300 designated petrol stations were being supplied for the use of essential services only, and it was likely to be two weeks before all 13,000 or so stations were fully stocked again.
Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw said he would head a special task force set up to avoid a repetition of the crisis by improving coordination with oil companies.
He said the government had failed to anticipate the chaos that a few thousand peaceful demonstrators could cause.
Belgian businesses and commuters were also struggling back to normal after truckers ended protests that brought their country to a virtual standstill.
Cars, buses and trams flowed freely around Brussels, easing commuters' frustrations after five days of virtual paralysis.
Most of the truckers left the capital late on Thursday night after their unions accepted an $83 million compensation package following tough negotiations with a government which refused to bow to demands for a direct cut in fuel taxes.
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), September 15, 2000
When you read that there is a 10-mile backup of ocean going oil tankers waiting to unload oil at Antwerp you know there has to be a delivery slowdown.
-- Billiver (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 15, 2000.
Talk about what people don't realize - all this backed up oil has to be processed through refineries, antoher choke point. And it's at the point of end use that shortages explode into higher prices. Ouch!
-- Wellesley (email@example.com), September 15, 2000.