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Gas price protests bring chaos to Britain

As pumps go dry, the prime minister gives delivery trucks police escorts and defiantly vows not to cut fuel taxes.

Much of Britain and parts of the rest of Europe came to a standstill Tuesday amid protests over rising fuel prices and a flurry of gasoline-buying by nervous motorists.

Ambulances made only emergency runs, delivery trucks stayed off the roads and lines of cars extended far behind the dwindling number of gas stations still open Tuesday.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone warned that the city's red buses could come to a halt, and airport officials projected aviation fuel supplies would run out Thursday if not replenished. Rail companies were reported to have enough fuel to continue running trains only a day or two longer, and one supermarket chain said it feared that trucking slowdowns could disrupt its deliveries and choke supplies of food at its stores by the weekend.

As the situation worsened, Queen Elizabeth II and the Privy Council authorized the government to take action to prevent the disruption of critical emergency services. Under the 1976 Energy Act, the queen may grant the government exceptional power _ namely the use of police and military _ to assure that fuel supplies are distributed.

The crisis was triggered by farmers and truckers who protested rising gas prices by blocking gasoline deliveries from nearly every refinery. Their action prompted a widespread run on gasoline as panicked drivers waited in long lines and pumps ran dry at about half of Britain's 13,000 gasoline stations.

Fuel protests escalated elsewhere in Europe on Tuesday. Belgian truckers caused traffic jams in Brussels, as did their counterparts in the Netherlands and Germany. Italy and Poland faced threats of similar action.

In England, Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered police escorts for drivers of gasoline delivery trucks.

"Legitimate protest is one thing," Blair said during a news conference at 10 Downing St. "Trying to bring the country to a halt is another, and there can be absolutely no justification for it."

Blair refused calls to lower the gasoline tax. Britons pay $4.37 a gallon, among the highest in Europe, about 80 percent of which is tax. Some stations, however, were charging more Tuesday, with prices as high as $5 a gallon.

The price of gasoline has climbed about 20 percent in the last year as the worldwide price of oil has risen.

Blair said Tuesday morning that oil companies bore responsibility for ensuring that fuel supplies reached their destinations. After a meeting with industry representatives, he announced that the government would intervene but stopped short of saying that military troops would be deployed.

As darkness fell, some trucks moved out of the refineries. Blair vowed that things would be back to normal in 24 hours.

The government's stance against the demonstrators contrasted with that of France, whose leaders last week responded to similar blockades of ports and cities by cutting the fuel tax by 15 percent. Britain's protests got under way as France's ended and are receiving broad popular support.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry, Sophie Fielding, said the government had spent the day monitoring the situation but was not expected to back down from its refusal to reduce the gasoline tax. "We make our policy through budgets rather than pickets," she said.

The fuel protests are considered the worst unrest the country has suffered since 1990 uprisings that led to the repeal of the poll tax. Britain does not have a tradition of public protest, said political scientist Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics.

"We are usually a very insular nation," he said. "Enough people have looked across the Channel and seen what was happening there."

Emergency services were already disrupted in parts of Wales and Scotland, where the impact of the crisis was extensive and gasoline scarce. Truckers blocked the center of Edinburgh. Farther north, two accident victims had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital in Aberdeen after ambulances on the ground ran out of fuel.

Outpatient services and non-urgent operations were canceled at health facilities in Wales to conserve fuel for emergencies. Gasoline stocks were reported to be very low in that region, as well as in Manchester, Newcastle and London.

_ Information from Cox News Service was used in this report.

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