Italian truck drivers suspend strike

ROME Wed Dec 12, 2007 3:53pm EST

1 of 9. An aerial view of trucks blocking a highway toll booth during a transport strike on the outskirts of Rome December 12, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Alberto Berti

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ROME (Reuters) - Unions representing striking Italian truckers said on Wednesday they were suspending a three-day-old blockade that has cut off fuel supplies, closed factories and stopped food reaching the shops.

The two main unions behind the strike said they decided to halt the protest after the government promised to address their main concerns -- reduce diesel costs, crack down on cheap foreign competition and tighten rules on haulage contracts.

"The matter is resolved," Enrico Letta, a close adviser to Prime Minister Romano Prodi, told reporters.

"We are confident that in the next few hours the situation will go back to normal across the country."

The strike, in protest against high fuel costs and poor working conditions, meant supermarket shelves usually filled with fresh fruit and vegetables were going bare and most filling stations were closed.

Using hundreds of vehicles to block motorways at strategic points since Monday, the truckers brought parts of the economy to a standstill. Car maker Fiat closed factories for lack of parts and told thousands of workers to stay at home.

The protests continued on Wednesday, despite an injunction from the Transport Ministry, which had ordered the drivers to go back to work from midnight on Tuesday and said their strike was illegal.

Rome's main fruit and vegetable market was almost empty on Wednesday morning and food trade body Federalimentare said the strike was costing the sector 210 million euros ($308.4 million) a day in lost perishables.

Italy's farm association said it would take a week for supplies to return to normal in shops and supermarkets.

After talks with union representatives, the government on Wednesday put forward a 12-point plan, seen by Reuters, to end the protest.

"The unions will judge the government according to whether it fulfils its commitments," said a joint statement from the Cna Fita and Confartigianato Trasporti unions, announcing the strike had been suspended.

Throughout the day, car drivers on Italy's motorways had large stretches of road to themselves, free of freight traffic and with far fewer private vehicles than normal. However, they faced long queues at the few filling stations that had fuel left.

"I can only give them 20 euros' worth -- enough to let them get off the motorway," a petrol pump attendant told Reuters Television.

The disruption spread beyond Italy's borders. Hundreds of trucks were blocked at the border with France in Ventimiglia. News media reported scuffles between Italian and foreign drivers.

Dutch transport trade body TLN urged the European Union to lift the usual Sunday truck driving ban to allow stranded foreign drivers to get home once the disruption was over.

(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri, Valentina Rusconi and Roberto Landucci; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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