Hundreds of South Korean police commandos have mounted a dramatic raid on a car plant outside Seoul in an effort to end a strike by hundreds of sacked workers that has lasted for more than two months.
As the raid began on Wednesday morning some descended from a shipping container carried by helicopter onto to one of the plant’s paint shop buildings, said to contain tanks of highly-flammable chemicals.
Fires set by the protesters inside the plant sent clouds of thick black smoke billowing into the sky.
The factory, owned by troubled carmaker Ssangyong, has been occupied by around 600 workers fighting mass layoffs at the debt-stricken company.
A union representing the workers said that they “will fight to the death should police forcefully break up the occupation”.
According to media reports, two workers fell from a three-storey rooftop while trying to stop the commandos from landing.
Yonhap news agency reported they were injured but not in critical condition.
The factory is located at Pyeongtaek about 70km south of the South Korean capital, Seoul.
Workers, armed with steel pipes and giant slingshots firing nuts and bolts, have been holed up inside the paint shop for two months.
The police raid comes after talks were held last week between management and union representatives aimed at ending the standoff.
Last week, an estimated 4,000 members of the South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions protested outside the main factory in Pyeongtaek.
The protesters were demonstrating against a plan to enforce massive job cuts and in support of the occupying workers.
The siege has paralysed production and Ssangyong says it has cost the company more than $184m in lost output.
South Korea’s fifth-largest carmaker has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February after falling sales and mounting debt raised questions about its survival.
As part of its bankruptcy protection process, it has been carrying out a major restructuring, aiming to shed about a third of its work force.
Some 1,670 workers have left the company voluntarily while of the thousand or so who opposed the move, some were later fired, a company spokesman said.
In late June union representatives rejected a compromise offer from management to rehire some laid off workers by 2012 and give others help to find other jobs or opportunities to retire with more benefits.
A union spokesman has said the company should present a better proposal regarding the layoffs.
Ssangyong is majority-owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp, one of China’s largest auto manufacturers, although it lost management control in the bankruptcy protection process.