Fuel Price Protests Spread, Pressure Governments

Protests against surging fuel prices which have triggered fears of political instability and a global economic downturn expanded in Europe and Asia on Monday, and Colombian truckers said they would join the wave of strikes.

Protests by truckers, fishermen and other groups particularly vulnerable to rising energy costs have swept across countries from Spain to India and South Korea in recent weeks. Widening public anger has pushed oil prices to the top of the policy agenda in many states.

A meeting of the world's richest nations warned at the weekend that soaring commodity prices may slice into growth, but failed to offer any plan to calm markets or quell mushrooming protests.

On Monday, French truckers began blocking roads in the latest protest to pressure the government to help them cope with oil prices that have more than doubled in a year.

The nationwide day of action announced by the main haulage associations included roadblocks and so-called "snail" operations by convoys of slow-moving trucks and is expected to disrupt traffic severely, especially on highways.

"It's not about punishing transport users, it's about sending a warning to the government," said Philippe Fournier, an official of Unostra, an association that mainly represents small haulage firms.

"It has to accept its responsibilities." In South Korea, construction workers joined striking truckers in the latest blow to new President Lee Myung-bak, who said inflationary pressures were creating the biggest global economic crisis in 30 years.

The workers are pushing for cheaper fuel and higher pay. Stepping up the pressure, the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is due to announce on Tuesday the result of a vote by its more than 600,000 members on strike action.

"It's no overstatement to say that the world is faced with the gravest crisis since the oil shock in the 1970s, with oil, food and raw materials prices skyrocketing," Lee told Asian and European finance ministers on the resort island of Jeju.

Spreading Protests

A major Thai truckers group which threatened to blockade the capital Bangkok this week agreed to postpone the protest on Monday after the government promised to help the transport sector deal with the increasing fuel costs.

Last week, thousands of Thai hauliers went on a half-day strike.

Facing sustained protests on the streets of Bangkok and shaky public support, Thailand's four-month old government is trying to shore itself up with handouts to everyone from rice farmers to bus operators.

In Colombia, the world's No. 3 coffee producer, freight drivers were also due to stage a national strike on Monday. Transport Minister Andres Uriel Gallego said officials were taking measures to guarantee food supplies.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is hosting a meeting of oil producers and consumers on June 22 to help find a solution to record energy prices.

Oil has risen 40 percent since the start of this year, boosted by expectations that supply will struggle to meet demand from newly industrialising countries such as China and India.

Surging fuel and food prices drove inflation in the 15 euro zone countries to a new record high of 3.7 percent -- with energy costs jumping 13.7 percent, data showed on Monday. Even some oil producers are feeling the pinch.

Iran's government plans to ask parliament for $7 billion to pay for increasingly expensive fuel imports, a newspaper said on Monday, despite gasoline rationing launched by the world's fourth-largest oil producer last year.