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Brazil government orders troops to clear strikers' blockades

BRASILIA, May 26, 2018 (BSS/AFP) - Brazil's government raised the stakes in its tense standoff with striking truckers Friday, ordering troops onto the streets to clear huge blockades that have left much of the country paralyzed.

The country's economic capital of Sao Paulo declared a state of emergency, the auto industry shut down, gas stations ran out of fuel and dozens of flights were canceled on the fifth day of the protest Friday.

The truckers have attempted to put a stranglehold on movement of goods in Brazil to protest fuel price rises.

They blocked main roads in much of the vast South American country that has only limited rail services and where 60 percent of goods are transported by road.

The truckers pressed on with the strike despite an agreement announced by the government with union representatives late Thursday to call a 15-day suspension.

President Michel Temer announced in a televised address Friday that he had "mobilized the security forces" to clear the roads -- a move criticized by Amnesty International as "impermissible."

"We are not going to permit that the population does not have access to essential goods... that hospitals do not have the necessary medicines to save lives," he said in a televised address.

- 'Gasoline to put out a fire' -

"We accepted the 12 main demands of the truckers, who agreed to immediately end the blockades. Unfortunately, a radical minority continues to block the roads."

Defense Minister Joaquim Silva e Luna vowed the army "will act in a rapid, coordinated and robust manner... to free traffic in the critical areas" such as at refineries and airports.

In a joint statement, the leaders of the main unions slammed "the government's decision to use the army as an instrument of repression" and "try to use gasoline to put out a fire."

But the Abcam union, which represents some 700,000 truckers, called on its members to withdraw the blockades, voicing "concern for the safety of the drivers."

In a press conference later Friday, public security minister Raul Jungmann said 45 percent of the blockades had been cleared, but over 500 remained.

The mayor of Sao Paulo had earlier declared a state of emergency to allow city authorities to "seize private goods such as fuel, for example, that is stored in a service station."

Exports were also badly hit as the strike forced the auto industry, which employs some 132,000 people, to close down, because factories were unable to receive supplies.

The airport in the capital Brasilia canceled 30 flights as it ran out of fuel.

The company that manages the country's airports, Infraero, said 10 others have also exhausted their fuel supplies, including that of Recife in the northeast.

- 'Gas stations deserted -

Long lines have formed at gas stations in major cities since Monday as drivers sought to fill up before supplies ran out.

But on Friday, many of those service stations were deserted as there was no fuel.

Fresh produce was becoming increasingly scarce in supermarkets. And when it appeared, the prices had often doubled.

In the Jardim Paulista district of Sao Paulo, one fresh food vendor said he feared he would have nothing left to offer in the coming days.

"Today, I'm here, tomorrow I don't know. Soon, it's be like Venezuela. People have money but there is nothing to buy," said the man, who asked that his name not be used.

The strikers are protesting increases in fuel prices -- the result of a politically sensitive decision made in late 2016 to allow the state-run Petrobras oil giant autonomy to set its pricing, as well as a rise in world prices in recent weeks.

The truckers' determination has been a heavy blow to Temer's center-right government, five months ahead of presidential elections.

"It shows to the public and to markets, in Brazil and overseas, that the Temer government... has no power," political analyst Andre Cesar of the Hold consultancy said.

"We have been underestimated by this government. They said that Brazil would not stop if the trucks stopped. We have proved that it would," striker Luiz Carlos, 47, told AFP as his truck was part of blockade at an oil refinery in Duque de Caxias, near Rio de Janeiro. According to the National Transport Confederation, Brazil has more 2.5 million trucks, some 477,000 of which are operated by independent drivers.

If the movement intensifies, the economic consequences could be catastrophic for a country that has struggled to recover from a 2015-16 recession.