Police Battle Auto Plant Strikers in South Korea

Workers have occupied the factory since May 21 in protest at job cuts designed to save the Ssangyong Motor plant in Pyeon.

South Korean police commandos, backed by water cannon and helicopters spraying liquid tear gas, seized another building occupied by strikers August 4 in a bid to evict them from a troubled car plant.

The operation began after thousands of riot police surrounded a paint shop and an adjacent building at the Ssangyong Motor plant in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Seoul.

Hundreds of workers -- armed with metal pipes, powerful slingshots and inflammable paint thinner -- have occupied the factory since May 21 in protest at job cuts designed to save the Chinese-invested company.

Witnesses said two helicopters sprayed liquid tear gas. Police removed barricades with forklifts to help commandos climb ladders through a hail of nuts and bolts fired by catapults. Strikers also hurled firebombs or rolled out burning tires but failed to stop police reaching the rooftop of a building attached to the paint shop, where unionists have holed up. Police then tried to move into the paint shop but retreated after a brief clash following fierce resistance from the strikers.

More than 500 unionists were still inside the paint shop, which is stacked with inflammable materials. Hundreds of firefighters were on standby.

Three days of talks between managers and union leaders broke down on August 2, raising concerns the debt-stricken company may go bankrupt.

The firm in February secured court protection from creditors after China's Shanghai Automotive Industry gave up management control. Court-appointed managers have since struggled to turn it around through job cuts and cost savings. The program calls for the sacking of 2,646 workers or 36% of the workforce. About 1,670 of these have taken voluntary redundancy but others began an occupation of the plant.

Creditors have threatened to push for bankruptcy against the loss-making plant. But the union has refused to give up its demands for no layoffs and no lawsuits against it for damages.

The standoff has cost about 316 billion won (US$259 million)in lost revenue. The country's smallest auto firm specializes in sports utility vehicles and luxury sedans.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

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