REFILE-Burundi civil servants strike for pay raise

(Refiles to fix typo in headline to read servants)

BUJUMBURA, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Burundian civil servants started a three-day strike on Monday for higher wages, but the government declared it illegal and unnecessary since it will raise their pay by a third in January.

The latest strike by civil servants underscored one of the most difficult challenges facing the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza -- rejuvenating an economy destroyed by 12 years of civil war.

"Civil servants live in misery. Living conditions have become very hard," Celestin Nsavyimana, spokesman for the country's confederation of trade unions, told reporters.

Burundian civil servants earn between $35 and $60 per month. "We decided to go on strike, so that the government thinks about revising the current salaries," he said.

Monday's stoppage paralysed activities in many state services, and reduced work in key ministries like finance and education. Nurses however declined to strike, saying their earlier work stoppage had produced results from the government.

Primary schools were shut, but secondary school teachers said they did not want to penalise students who were in the middle of their exams.

Burundi's government promised to raise salaries for its civil servants by 34 percent starting in July, but the International Monetary Fund urged it to raise revenues first.

The government withheld the wage rise and blamed insufficient cash reserves, and said it would come into effect by January.

"The government agreed to pay the 34 percent of salary increase next year, and this will be included in 2008 budget," Civil Service Minister Clotilde Niragira said. "We don't understand the reason of this strike."

Niragira called the strike illegal, and appealed to the civil servants to return to work to avoid severe sanctions. (Editing by Bryson Hull and Myra MacDonald)