* Protester lift blockade, unclear if protest over
* Fears of contagion at other mines persist
* Mine operations says unclear restart date (Recast with lift of blockade, adds protest leader comment)
By Alonso Soto
SANTIAGO, May 11 (Reuters) - Subcontractors cleared access roads to Chile's Collahuasi copper mine to avoid clashes with police in a move that could herald an end to a five-day protest that halted operations at one of the world's top deposits, two protest leaders said.
"We have cleared the roads and are leaving the mine," Roberto Escobar, one of the protest leaders at the mine, told Reuters on Tuesday. "We are not standing on the side of the road. People are going home"
But another union leader said lifting the blockade did not mean the protest was over and it was unclear if the demonstration would continue.
Collahuasi said it was unclear when it would restart operations at the mine that produced 535,000 tonnes of copper last year.
Talks to end the blockade that had cut 3.3 percent of the world's mined copper output broke down earlier on Tuesday, which raised the specter of violence at the mine. Riot police entered the mine to clear the roads, but there no clashes, protest leaders and the operator said.
Copper prices slid on Tuesday as lingering European debt fears kept markets jittery, but a prolonged strike at the massive mine and growing risk of contagion in the world's top copper producer could push up the metal's value.
Collahuasi was forced to halt operations on Saturday, a day after hundreds of subcontractors blocked access with burning tires and rocks to demand better working conditions and pay.
Global miners Anglo American (AAL.L) and Xstrata XTA.L jointly own a 44 percent stake each. A Japanese consortium led by Mitsui & Co (8031.T) is a minority stakeholder. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ ANALYSIS-Chile copper may take hit on protest [ID:nN11103356] TIMELINE of Chile's major mining strikes [ID:nN1199411] FACTBOX of Chile copper labor contracts [ID:nN10216242] FACTBOX on Chile's giant Collahuasi mine [ID:nN1198815] Map: Chile top copper mines link.reuters.com/zad85j ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
RISK OF CONTAGION
Protest leaders had told Reuters they plan to spread their fight that has drawn national attention on the growing pay disparity between subcontractors and their full-time peers. They said they represent around 4,000 subcontractors working for the mine.
Collahuasi said it had abandoned talks due to the subcontractors' refusal to allow hundreds of its workers at the mine, located more than 4,400 meters (14,500 feet) above sea level, to return home from their shift.
Union leaders for the mine's full-time workers said they sympathize with subcontractors, signaling what could be tough collective negotiations as the union contract expires in November.
Mining companies face a growing risk of more protests if they fail to raise benefits and improve conditions for thousands of part-time workers who are needed for operations in a country that extracts a third of the world's mined copper.
In 2007 and 2008, sometimes violent subcontractor protests cut output at the world's top producer Codelco, forcing the state giant to pay higher wages and improve working conditions.
Cristian Cuevas, who led the protests at Codelco and is the head of a nationwide subcontractors group, said the his members' plight is likely to spread across the country if mines do not start improve their working conditions.
"There is no question this fight will expand across the country," said Cuevas, the head of a nation-wide confederation of subcontractors. "Companies will have to respect the their workers, stop the discrimination."
Unions and executives at Codelco [CODEL.UL], BHP Billiton (BHP.AX) (BLT.L) Antofagasta (ANTO.L) have said there has been no incidents with subcontractors at their mines in Chile since the Collahuasi protest started. (Reporting by Alonso Soto and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Gevirtz)