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Burkina marchers protest against high food prices

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Several thousand demonstrators waving empty rice sacks and beating cooking pans marched through Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou on Wednesday in a noisy protest against soaring living costs.

The march, which was escorted by police but was peaceful, took place on the second day of a general strike called by unions in the landlocked West African state to demand salary rises and government action to reduce high food prices.

“We’ve come out with these empty sacks and these pans to tell the government we’re hungry and that there’s nothing to eat at home,” said Sali Some, a civil servant, as other protesters around him clanged together kitchen pots and pans.

Rocketing prices for food staples and fuel products, reflecting a global surge in prices for major cereals and oil, have triggered riots and protests across West Africa, the poorest region of the world’s least developed continent.

Food riots swept Burkina Faso’s two biggest cities in February and more than 300 people were arrested after widespread looting and clashes with police.

The government has moved to cut import duties and to subsidize cereals to try to cushion the effects of high prices on consumers in the largely dry and arid West African country, most of whose population are poor and live from farming.

But unions launched a 72-hour general strike on Tuesday, the second such protest stoppage in five weeks, to press a demand for a 25 percent rise in public sector salaries and pensions.

“Our leaders need to understand. I hope they see this march and realize the problems we have with food. They should lower prices and increase salaries, that’s all we’re asking,” said Catherine Yameogo, a teacher who took part in the protest.

Burkina Faso’s government says its budget and revenues have been squeezed by the extra subsidies and tax reductions it has introduced, making it impossible to satisfy the union demands for hefty salary and pensions increases.

Aid experts say more than 100 million people worldwide risk being pushed into hunger because of rocketing food prices caused by a combination of record high oil prices, increased demand for foodstuffs, speculation on commodities futures markets and the switchover of crops to biofuel production.

Although shops closed in Ouagadougou’s commercial centre as the protesters passed, they reopened once the march had gone by.

As on Tuesday, the support for the unions’ general strike call was mixed.

While many schools and banks closed in the Burkina Faso capital, central government offices appeared to be operating normally and the transport system was running.

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Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Janet Lawrence