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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Furious Miners March on Bucharest

COSTESTI, Romania -- Striking Romanian miners, backed by frenzied local residents, used stones and clubs to force their way through cordons of riot police in a ravine on Thursday and sweep closer to the capital, Bucharest.

State television said at least 80 people were injured, hit by flying rocks or suffering from tear gas. Most were policemen.

Miners forced their way through 3,400 troops who responded with smoke bombs and tear gas in clashes that lasted two hours. Buoyed by their success, miners shouted "Down with the government!'' and then boarded buses for Bucharest, some 190 kilometers southeast of Costesti.

It was the second time in three days that the miners, who are demanding big pay increases and a reversal of decisions to close uneconomic mines, had overwhelmed cordons of police in central Romania's hilly countryside.

The miners, who have a reputation for militancy dating from communist times, have confronted centrist President Emil Constantinescu with his worst crisis since he took office in 1996.

"Miners are attacking in an organized way, like an army,'' government spokesman Rasvan Popescu said. "They have taken prisoners among the policemen.''

The violence erupted after the miners rejected the government's offer for more negotiations aimed at ending their 16-day-old strike and advanced on the special troops massed along a main road to Bucharest.

Police arrested an unspecified number of miners as they tried to break through police lines.

Authorities are eager to prevent miners descending on Bucharest, fearing violent protests. In two previous visits to the capital in 1990 and 1991, miners rampaged for days, leaving nine people dead, dozens injured and forcing the government to resign.

Prime Minister Radu Vasile earlier named a government team to negotiate with the miners in a nearby city, but miners rejected the offer, insisting the premier be present.

"We have to go to Bucharest. We shall go on," miners' leader Miron Cozma told exultant miners from atop a car near the dismantled barricade.

Cozma served a brief jail term last year for leading violent protests that convulsed Bucharest in the early 1990s, leaving seven people dead and prompting the resignation of Romania's first post-communist government.

By late evening, news reports said Cozma was cheered by thousands of residents shouting anti-government slogans along the route taking his convoy of trucks, buses and cars to the next big town on the road to the capital, Rimnicu Vilcea. Reporters driving through the area said the only new police presence was a big roadblock 50 kilometers from Bucharest.

The miners, who already earn more than twice the average monthly wage equivalent to $100, are clearly drawing support from frustrated Romanians with some of the lowest living standards in ex-communist eastern Europe. But others, particularly in Bucharest, view them with fear in view of their track record of violence.

In Bucharest, Interior Minister Gavril Dejeu resigned after the debacle and his replacement immediately sacked the head of the gendarmerie, the police responsible for public order.

"We no longer face a protest but rather a brutal attack on security forces and on state authority," Constantinescu told leaders of parties from both the centrist government and leftist and nationalist opposition.

"The government must negotiate, but reforms cannot be negotiated. Giving in to force and violence would prove Romania does not have solid democracy."

Party leaders called for new talks headed for the first time by Prime Minister Vasile. But they asked the president to proclaim a state of emergency if the four-day-old march remained violent and advanced further on the capital.

The only group absent from the talks was the extreme nationalist Greater Romania Party, closely linked to Cozma.

Constantinescu was due in the evening to chair a session of the Supreme Defense Council made up of top ministers and security officials and the Cabinet was also scheduled to hold a late session, its second of the day.

Parliament, which must approve any emergency measures, moved forward an extraordinary session to Friday.

In Costesti, jubilant miners for a time surrounded dejected policemen who had retreated to adjacent yards and returned to them shields and truncheons initially seized as trophies. Dozens of police vehicles lay abandoned nearby on the roadside.

"Why did you use tear gas against us?" one miner asked a young officer.

The local prefect, or government representative, said he had feared for his life and was saved from injury only when Cozma pulled him free and put him into a car.

"The police operation was led in an unprofessional way and plans were not respected," he told a local television station. "People from the village who knew the area helped the miners."

About 10,000 miners, Romania's most militant workforce, had set off from their Jiu Valley coalfield on Monday dodging or bulldozing their way through earlier roadblocks.

(Reuters, AP)