South Korea police use tear gas in strike standoff

SEOUL — South Korean police Wednesday sprayed tear gas from helicopters to try to evict unionists armed with petrol bombs and slingshots from a loss-making auto plant.

About 1,000 striking workers equipped with metal pipes, powerful slingshots and inflammable paint thinner have for two months occupied the Ssangyong Motor plant in protest at job cuts designed to save the Chinese-invested company.

Hundreds of riot police moved into the plant Monday to try to end the occupation and took over some buildings, but strikers held out in the paint ship and some other locations.

About 3,000 other police deployed at the gates in readiness. They were joined Wednesday by about 100 police commandos, to lead a possible raid of the occupied buildings.

Television showed police helicopters spraying liquid tear gas on masked workers guarding the barricaded paint shop at the plant at Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometres (44 miles) south of Seoul.

There have been no hand-to-hand clashes but 16 people including five policemen were injured as strikers fired nuts and bolts from the industrial sized slingshots, Yonhap news agency said.

About 40 fire trucks and ambulances were on standby, it said.

Ssangyong, the country’s smallest carmaker which specialises in sport-utility vehicles and luxury sedans, said the strike had cost 245.6 billion won (196.5 million dollars) in lost revenue.

The debt-stricken firm in February won court protection from creditors after China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry gave up management control.

Court-appointed managers have since struggled to turn it around through job cuts and cost savings.

The programme calls for the sacking of 2,646 workers or 36 percent of the workforce, in what would be the country’s first mass layoffs since the onset of the global economic crisis in September.

Some 1,670 workers have taken voluntary retirement but the remainder staged the sit-in. There have been clashes between strikers and employees trying to go to work.

In the first six months of this year, Ssangyong’s auto sales plunged 74 percent from the same period last year to 13,020 units.

Government officials have warned that Ssangyong may go bankrupt if the occupation continues.

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