Police Battle Striking South Korean Auto Workers

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea (AP) -- South Korean police commandos on Tuesday stormed an auto factory to break up a strike by fired workers, though stopped short of assaulting the plant's flammable paint shop where hundreds have held out for more than two months.

The raid at Ssangyong Motor Co.'s Pyeongtaek factory, which houses its sole assembly line, comes after weeks of tension that has seen workers use slingshots and molotov cocktails against approaching riot police, who have responded by dropping tear gas from helicopters.

The fifth-largest South Korean carmaker has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February amid falling sales and mounting red ink. Troubles have deepened in the past two months with hundreds of dismissed workers occupying the factory's paint shop -- packed with flammable materials -- to protest massive layoffs.

An officer with the Gyeonggi provincial police said about 80 commandos had taken over a few factory buildings occupied by strikers and were being supported by three police and two fire helicopters. Strikers fought back, hurling firebombs at police, he said.

The officer added there were injuries, though he had no details. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that at least 23 people had been injured, including police and Ssangyong employees, but it was unknown how many of the striking workers were hurt. The injured were hospitalized, it said.

Estimates by police and Ssangyong have put the number of people occupying the factory's paint shop -- the focal point of the protest -- at up to 600, though some have given up in recent days.

The facility is located in the city of Pyeongtaek, some 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Seoul.

By late afternoon, the situation was in a lull and the strikers had ceased firing at police, the police official said. Police had earlier closed in on the paint shop but did not enter it.

Union spokesman Lee Chang-kun said a police assault on the paint shop would be deadly.

"We will respond to it, bracing ourselves for death," he said.

The paint shop is said to contain flammable material which besides the risk of a violent showdown has raised fears of an inferno if there is a full-blown police assault.

Lee Won-muk, a Ssangyong spokesman, said that between 500 and 540 people were still occupying the paint shop after about 100 gave up on Sunday and another 17 on Tuesday.

Numerous ambulances and fire trucks were standing by. Strikers had set Ssangyong vehicles on fire and were also burning tires. A thick cloud of smoke rose above the facility.

Unionists have been occupying the facility for more than two months to protest massive job cuts by Ssangyong, which is seeking to reorganize after entering bankruptcy protection.

A major restructuring plan calls for the shedding of 2,646 workers, or 36 percent of the work force. Some 1,670 have left the company voluntarily but nearly 1,000 opposed the move.

The standoff intensified last month when riot police began gradually moving in to kick protesters out of the compound.

Talks last week to end the occupation broke off Sunday, with management threatening to take steps toward bankruptcy unless the union accepted a compromise offer on layoffs.

The company offered to keep more workers than before in a compromise proposal, but the union insisted on no layoffs.

The unrest has cost Ssangyong over 300 billion won ($246.27 million) in lost production since it began, said Lee, the company spokesman.

Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang and Kelly Olsen in Seoul contributed to this report.

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