May 15, 2009 / 12:05 PM / in 11 years

Bulgarian steel workers rally over plant shutdown

SOFIA, May 15 (Reuters) - Hundreds of workers at Bulgaria’s troubled steelmaker Kremikovtzi hurled stones and clashed with police in Sofia on Friday after natural gas supplies to the mill were cut off, prompting its effective shutdown.

Two workers from the mill, once the country’s largest steel maker, were arrested after they tried to overcome the police cordon and break into the Economy Ministry.

About 1,000 workers protested in front of the ministry after state gas monopoly Bulgargaz cut supplies to the plant, Bulgaria’s industrial glory during the Communist era but now declared insolvent.

The steelmakers, who had not received salaries since November, threw stones against the mill’s headquarters and laid a coffin and lit candles to protest the gas cut-off.

The rally, which moved from the plant to the ministry and back, was the latest expression of rising public anger over the Socialist-led government’s failure to significantly raise living standards, crack down on corruption and shield the economy from the crisis.

The Balkan country has been hit by a series of protests by farmers, students, police officers and environmentalists who say they are fed up with life in the European Union’s poorest and most corrupt member state.

The global economic downturn that has sparked violent protests and toppled governments across central and eastern Europe, has hit the popularity of the ruling Socialists [ID:nLB620470].

A parliamentary election is scheduled for July 5.

“The gas cut off is the craziest move of this government,” said Vassil Yanachkov, head of the metallurgy unit at CITUB trade union. “They do not know what they are doing,” he said.

Kremikovtzi, which employs about 5,000 people, was declared insolvent last August. Officials say the global economic downturn has prevented a major investor from taking over the plant. Talks for a production agreement with Brazil’s CSN (CSNA3.SA) failed late on Thursday, the Economy Ministry said. (Reporting by Irina Ivanova and Tsvetelia Ilieva)

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