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Fuel protests, shortages spread across Europe

Taking a page from the book of French and Belgian protesters, British farmers went to the streets Monday to demand their governments lower fuel prices, and their Irish and German counterparts are threatening to follow suit.

Blockades at British refineries caused shortages, and panic buying spread across the nation. But Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed not to cave in to pressure from protesters.

"We cannot and will not alter government policy on petrol through blockades and pickets _ that is not the way to make policy in Britain," Blair insisted. "The sensible way, the only right way to deal with this problem, is to put pressure on OPEC."

Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers, meanwhile, called on the police to use whatever means necessary to end the refinery blockades.

European gasoline and diesel prices have shot up as the price of crude oil has risen from about $24 to $32 a barrel since the start of the year. But while European governments are pressing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost production and lower prices, European tractor, truck and taxi drivers are pushing their governments to lower taxes.

About 75 percent of the price of gasoline in Britain is taxes, compared to about 69 percent in France and 24 percent in the United States. Unleaded gas was selling for about $5.47 a gallon in London on Monday, but many stations in the city ran out, as did hundreds of others throughout the country.

Protests disrupted traffic across Britain, particularly in the north of the country. British farmers and truck drivers, who began staking out main refineries Thursday, blockaded the Conoco refinery in Lincolnshire in eastern England and the nearby Lindsey refinery, and were planning to obstruct rush hour traffic in Leeds.

In northern England alone, about 200 gas stations were closed Monday, their supplies blocked, according to the Petrol Retailers' Association. Gas companies said to expect roughly 2,000 gas stations to run dry by today. Some ambulance companies in Wales and northern England canceled all but emergency service to conserve fuel.

"More and more people are joining us all the time," said Nigel Kime, spokesman for British Hauliers United. "We plan to affect major roads and are making sure all the areas where the fuel is are targeted."

Farmers already have been hit hard by low crop prices; fishermen, truck and taxi drivers complain that the high cost of fuel is putting their livelihoods in danger.

When French drivers launched their protests last month, blockading refineries, gas stations and the English Channel tunnel crossing, many Britons regarded them with exasperation for resorting to what the Economist magazine termed "vile habits."

But others admired their moxie, noting that attempts to organize even a daylong boycott of gas purchases in Britain earlier this year had failed. And when the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin gave in to French protesters demands with a 15 percent cut in fuel taxes, the British took note.

So did the Belgians, Germans, Dutch and Irish.

Truckers, taxi drivers and tour bus operators in Belgium expanded protests Monday, blocking the country's largest oil refinery and main arteries in the capital. Several hundred truck drivers continued to jam main roads leading to downtown Brussels.

Some 20 trucks also moved in to cut access to the country's largest oil refinery south of Brussels, near the city of Charleroi.

Talks between trucker federations and Belgian Transport Minister Isabelle Durant to end the protest broke up without an agreement to give truckers a fuel tax rebate to compensate the high diesel prices.

In the Netherlands, several dozen truck drivers blocked a major freeway Monday in the first Dutch protest of high fuel prices.

Three trucks were parked across the road, halting all traffic between the port city of Rotterdam and the southern town of Breda.

"Lots of smaller companies are on the verge of bankruptcy because of the high prices," said Ruben Hubbers, spokesman of the Resistance Party, which organized the Dutch action.

German truckers threatened to disrupt the country's transport network starting Thursday unless the government offered relief, and Irish truck drivers vowed to take action Friday unless there was a 20 percent cut in their diesel duty.