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Hungarians protest gas price rise

Angry taxi drivers and truck drivers blockaded the streets and bridges of Hungary's capital Saturday to protest the government's decision to raise gasoline prices by 65 percent. Protesters also snarled traffic in dozens of other cities and towns, closed border crossings and brought much of the nation's economy to a standstill.

The protests began Friday morning when the new gasoline prices took effect, but the government has vowed not to bow to the protesters' demands to roll back the increases.

"The government has reached a decision, and it is irrevocable," said Interior Minister Balazs Horvath.

It remained unclear Saturday when the barricades would be removed because government officials said they would not forcibly end the roadblocks. The blockades usually took the form of taxis and trucks parked to shut bridge and highway entrances, railroad crossings and key intersections in dozens of towns and cities.

In his capacity as commander in chief, President Arpad Goncz ordered that the army and its vehicles not be used to settle the dispute.

According to MTI, the Hungarian press agency, Budapest's police chief, Sandor Barna, said he would resign if he were ordered to use force against the taxi drivers and truckers.

Political commentators said that after decades of repression under Communism, the government was loath to be seen as heavy-handed and stifling democratic expression. To try to end the crisis, the center-right government was negotiating with representatives of Budapest's 40,000 private taxi drivers.

The public seemed displeased with both sides in the dispute. Many Hungarians criticized the government for raising gas prices to about $3.80 a gallon, from $2.30 a gallon. That is equal to Western European prices and far higher than U.S. prices, even though the average Hungarian earns less than $50 a week at current exchange rates.

At the same time, many Hungarians condemned the taxi drivers and truckers for causing chaos. Many people could not get to work, many food deliveries could not be made, and there was a rush of panic buying for such essentials as bread and milk.

Hundreds of people had to sleep in their cars because the blockades prevented them from reaching home. Army trucks helped bring them food and drink Saturday morning.

For much of Friday and Saturday, five and sometimes all six of Budapest's bridges across the Danube were blocked.

The highway to Budapest's main airport was also blockaded much of Friday but was reopened sporadically Saturday. Hundreds of passengers missed their flights, and a charter helicopter service was begun between downtown hotels and the airport.

Government officials said they were forced to raise gasoline prices because the government has had to start buying large supplies of oil at world prices after the Soviet Union cut its heavily subsidized oil shipments to Hungary by 30 percent this summer.

Officials also said Hungary was down to just four days of gasoline reserves, and prices had to be increased to reduce consumption.

But the taxi drivers contended that the 65 percent increase was more than they could afford and more than was justified by the higher price the government pays for crude oil.