Mayor stages hunger strike as residents shiver

BUCHAREST Thu Nov 24, 2011 8:19am EST

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian mayor has begun a hunger strike to protest against cuts in heating subsidies imposed under a government austerity drive, reawakening memories of the harsh final years of communism.

Mayor Florin Cazacu said 10,000 residents in the central Romanian town of Brad were braving low temperatures at home because his town hall lacked 3 million lei ($925,200) from the state budget to buy fuel oil for the winter season.

"People are suffering from cold, this is why I began this protest," Cazacu told Reuters. "I took an oath ... to do everything in my power and competence for the sake of the inhabitants."

During the last years of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu heating was often shut down under an austerity drive aimed at repaying Romania's foreign debt.

This inflicted widespread suffering before Ceausescu's overthrow in 1989. Living standards have since risen sharply but winters remain tough for many Romanians.

The European Union's second poorest member state introduced tough austerity measures last year including salary cuts and a rise in value-added tax to one of the highest levels in the EU.

Romania has promised the International Monetary Fund, which is leading a 5 billion euro aid deal, to liberalize its gas and power markets, raise administered prices and scrap government subsidies for centralized heating.

Temperatures in winter fall as low as minus 30 Celsius degrees (-22 Fahrenheit) in the region around Brad, which has a total population of 17,000.

As apartments in Brad are not connected to mains gas, some people are using electric heaters but this has caused frequent power cuts due to town's poor electricity grid.

"I will stay on hunger strike for as long as it takes ... and give up the protest only if the government grants us the necessary funds," said 46-year-old Cazacu.

(editing by David Stamp)

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