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Strike by Tunisian fuel workers leads to queues and empty pumps

Tarek Amara

TUNIS, May 2 (Reuters) - Fuel distribution workers in Tunisia began a three-day strike on Thursday to demand higher wages, leading to long queues and empty pumps at petrol stations across the North African nation.

The government is facing rising public demands for more pay as price rise, with inflation at about 7 percent. It is also contending with pressure from international lenders to cut the public wage bill and other spending to shore up state finances.

Tunisia raised the minimum wage for industrial and farm workers, as well as pensions for hundreds of thousands of private-sector retirees, by 6.5 percent on Wednesday, a move aimed at defusing discontent about economic hardship. The government also agreed in February to raise wages of about 670,000 state employees after a nationwide strike.

The strike by fuel distribution workers, who are demanding a wage rise of about 300 dinars ($100) a month, is the latest in a series of stoppages by education, health and transport workers.

Tunisians have complained about a decline of state services since Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011. The uprising to topple the autocrat heralded a democratic transition but the associated turmoil also led to an economic crisis.

"All services have gone down, we have become like a country where there is a war - no fuel, no medicines, no milk," said one man, who only gave his name as Mohamed, in a queue for fuel.

The economic crisis has eroded living standards and driven up the level of unemployment, which economists blame on the slow pace of economic liberalisation reforms and poor investment.

($1 = 2.9891 Tunisian dinars) (Reporting by Tarek Amara Editing by Edmund Blair)