NEWS

Government, taxi drivers at loggerheads

A standoff between the government and taxi drivers protesting its plans to open up their sector to competition grew even tenser on Monday after a new round of talks aimed at breaking the deadlock collapsed and protests intensified.

Police on Crete fired tear gas to disperse cabbies who had blocked the road to Iraklio Airport, obliging hundreds of tourists to drag their luggage several hundred meters through the heat after tour buses could go no further. Taxi drivers responded to the volleys of tear gas by hurling stones at officers who eventually resorted to more heavy-handed tactics, using clubs to beat back protesters, according to witnesses.

There were also delays for several hours on the Athens-Patra highway at Rio, in the Peloponnese, due to a protest there by cabbies that created tailbacks stretching back several kilometers.

Protesters blocked access to the main port on the Ionian island of Corfu too and in Athens cabbies staged a rally outside the Transport Ministry which they said would continue for 48 hours.

The taxi drivers? frustration was clearly fueled by another breakdown in talks between union representatives and Transport Minister Yiannis Ragousis.

In the early afternoon, reports emerged that Ragousis had expressed readiness to satisfy a key demand of the cabbies — that limits be applied on the number of taxi licenses issued based on population statistics. But ministry sources later told Kathimerini that Ragousis had not shifted from his original position, favoring the full deregulation of the taxi drivers? sector. The minister said he would unveil detailed proposals about the planned overhaul by the end of month.

Government spokesman Ilias Mossialos also struck a serious tone, warning that if the protests continued ?the government will be obliged to look out for the public interest and it will do this.? Mossialos did not elaborate on this apparent threat but some commentators suggested yesterday that the government might be waiting for the taxi drivers to call off their strike when financial need makes it necessary for them to return to work.

Cabbies have pledged to continue their protests despite the serious financial losses they have incurred over the past two weeks and despite a warning by Ragousis that authorities will remove the license plates of any taxis used to block roads during protests.

A total of 7,138 people have been charged in connection with the taxi drivers? action over the past two weeks.