SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Helicopters sprayed tear gas on militant auto workers using slingshots to shoot nuts and bolts at riot police Tuesday amid a tense labor dispute at the main factory of an ailing South Korean automaker.
Hundreds of fired Ssangyong Motor Co. workers have been occupying part of the company's plant in Pyeongtaek, some 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Seoul, for two months to protest massive job cuts that are part of a restructuring plan.
South Korea's fifth-largest automaker has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February after falling sales and mounting red ink raised questions about its survival as a company.
Lee Won-muk, a Ssangyong spokesman, said an estimated 500-600 people are occupying a paint shop at the factory. Some 2,000 riot police were deployed outside of the factory while 1,000 others were inside the plant grounds, said an officer with the Gyeonggi provincial police.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media, said there were no major clashes, though confirmed that some workers fired slingshots. He said about 600 workers were either inside the paint factory or on the roof.
Police used two helicopters to drop liquid tear gas on protesters atop the paint shop, he said.
On Monday, riot police entered the grounds of the factory, which houses Ssangyong's only assembly line, along with a court official calling on the workers to give up.
Violent labor disputes are not unusual in South Korea, and riot police are often deployed, though major clashes resulting in deaths are rare. In this case, however, the location of the standoff has raised fears of a bloody ending.
Media reports said the paint shop contains flammable materials that could potentially ignite amid a major clash. The Hankyoreh newspaper expressed fears that a police assault could result in a "second Yongsan" -- a reference to a battle between police and squatters in Seoul earlier this year that left six people dead.
"We're fully ready to move in, but haven't set the timing because a lot of flammable material, such as paint and thinner, is scattered in the paint shop," the police officer said. "For now, it is difficult to move in."
Union spokesman Lee Chang-kun said the workers will try to resist if police launch an assault and suggested such a fight could turn bloody.
"If police decide to move in, then it would mean that they don't care even if dozens die," he said.
Gas, water and food supplies to the paint shop were cut off several days ago to pressure the protesters, but they are believed to have stocked up on enough food and other necessities to hold out for a considerable time, said Lee Won-muk, the company spokesman. Electricity remains on because it is necessary to keep paint at the factory fluid, he said.
There has been no dialogue to defuse the row since late June when Ssangyong's labor union rejected a compromise offer from management to rehire some of the workers by 2012 and give others opportunities to retire with more benefits or help to find other jobs, Lee said.
Union spokesman Lee Chang-kun said the company should present a better proposal regarding the layoffs. Lee Won-muk said the company has no plan to do so.
"An inflexible struggle that disregards reality earns no sympathy," the Hankook Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday criticizing the workers' stance.
The Hankyoreh argued against an assault, saying that "deploying police force will never suffice as a resolution to the situation."
As part of its bankruptcy protection process, Ssangyong has been carrying out a major restructuring, aiming to shed 2,646 workers, or 36 percent of its work force. Some 1,670 have left the company voluntarily though nearly 1,000 opposed the move. Some were later fired, company spokesman Lee said.
Ssangyong mostly manufactures light SUVs and a luxury sedan.
Ssangyong is majority-owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., one of China's largest vehicle manufacturers, though it lost management control amid the bankruptcy protection process.
Ssangyong says that the production stoppage has cost it 230 billion won ($184.1 million) in lost output.
Associated Press writers Kelly Olsen, Kwang-tae Kim and Wanjin Park contributed to this report.