Portugal's fuel-tanker drivers back down, walkout continues

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By Catarina Demony

LISBON, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Portuguese fuel-tanker drivers will maintain their strike indefinitely after a 10-hour meeting of union leaders and government officials ended without an agreement.

The meeting, which started on Friday afternoon and lasted until the early hours of Saturday, took place after the striking drivers said they would suspend the now six-day-old strike and negotiate with their employers association ANTRAM in government-brokered talks.

With the Socialist government acting as a mediator, ANTRAM and National Hazardous Materials Drivers' Union (SNMMP) submitted their proposals but did not sit at the same negotiating table. The proposals were rejected by both parties.

"In a negotiation, there must be compromises from both sides," SNMMPS's vice president Pedro Pardal Henriques told reporters shortly after the meeting. "There were none from ANTRAM."

ANTRAM's spokesman Andre Matias de Almeida explained that "companies do not have the financial capacity" to meet the drivers' demands.

Drivers began the indefinite strike on Monday, the second of the year after similar damaging industrial action in April.

About a quarter of Portugal's filling stations remained either completely out of fuel or were partially dry on Saturday morning, according to a website monitoring the strike.

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Motorists have been limited to buying up to 15 litres (4 gallons) of petrol at a network of special filling stations around the country, but there has so far been no widespread mass queuing at stations as there was in April.

To avoid chaos and ensure minimum supplies of fuel, the government had triggered a legal mechanism to order drivers to go back to work on Monday, or risk penalties. An energy crisis was declared ahead of strike.

No major problems have been reported at the country's airports so far.

On Sunday, striking drivers will gather at their union's plenary meeting and are expected to discuss next steps.

"In plenary, I hope that drivers, after seven days of strike, will be able to choose the negotiated route," said Pedro Nuno Santos, minister of infrastructures. "It's very rare for open-ended strikes to happen in Portugal." (Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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