Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Truckers stuck in border jams threaten to block Warsaw

Polish truckers, fed up with massive queues at border crossings due to a protest by customs staff, threatened Saturday to block Warsaw and other cities in the country.

"If the government and the customs agents do not quickly agree we are ready to block Warsaw, Monday at noon (1100 GMT). Blockades in other cities could follow," the president of the Polish Association for Road Transport Employers, Boleslaw Milewski, told AFP.

A large number of border agents have been missing from their posts for several days, taking holiday or sick-leave in a dispute over pay, and causing major queues at border crossings.

So far two drivers have died stuck in queues, one of an apparent heart attack and the other when a fire broke out in his truck cabin.

Queues for heavy trucks at the borders with Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad continued to grow on Saturday.

In response, truck drivers blocked access to the Dorohusk border station along the Ukrainian border -- where the line was over 800 trucks long -- police spokesperson Renata Laszczka-Rusek told AFP.

The crossing had been closed overnight due to a lack of customs agents, but reopened in the morning. However, the waiting time to leave Poland via this passage was still an estimated 55 hours.

The truckers also blocked the Kuznica crossing with Belarus, causing a line of about 350 vehicles at the border post, the PAP news agency reported.

Hundreds of trucks queued at other major crossings -- there was a line of approximately 800 trucks in Koroszczyn, on the border with Belarus, and 200 in Hrebenne on the border with Ukraine, according to the Polish media.

"At the moment, circulation of people and goods is totally paralysed," said the Belarussian foreign ministry in a statement, cited by PAP.

Negotiations with border agent unions started Friday afternoon, but were without result, according to the agents.

Some agents even threatened to quit should Poland's finance ministry refuse to meet their demands.

"Our protest movement continues," said Iwona Folta, head of the customs officials protest, early Saturday.

The customs officials' demands include a pay rise equivalent to 420 euros (618 dollars) per month, as well as retirement benefits in line with other civil servants and stronger legal protection against corruption accusations.

Customs procedures were tightened on December 21 along Poland's eastern border with non-EU states Ukraine, Belarus and Russian Kaliningrad after Poland was one of nine countries to join the Schengen free travel zone.