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August 6, 2009

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Commandos storm auto plant

POLICE commandos descending from a helicopter-borne shipping container stormed a South Korean auto plant yesterday, seizing all but one facility in the compound where hundreds of workers have held out for months in a battle over a company survival plan.

YTN television showed footage of the dramatic raid at Ssangyong Motor Co's Pyeongtaek factory, which came after commandos overran other buildings the day before in an effort to end a standoff that has threatened South Korea's fifth-largest auto maker with insolvency.

Ssangyong 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 - said to be packed with flammable materials such as paint and thinner - to protest massive layoffs.

A pitched battle ensued as the commandos stormed in, with helmet-wearing workers fighting back with sticks and throwing objects at the shield-wielding police. Commandos also fired water cannons from the container as it was suspended above the roof.

Protesters injured

A Gyeonggi provincial police officer said that about 100 commandos stormed the roof while another 300 riot police launched an assault on the paint shop with ladders. He said protesters fled and two were injured as they tried to escape down ladders. YTN reported that about 30 people on both sides suffered injuries.

Yesterday's raid still left hundreds of protesters in one of the paint shop buildings, with police taking control of the rest of the compound in the city of Pyeongtaek, some 70 kilometers south of Seoul. Police were not considering raiding the building immediately.

"We will take some time to think about going in there," National Police Agency chief Kang Hee-rak told reporters, adding that he hopes the company's union and management will reach a compromise on the dispute.

The flammable materials have raised fears of an inferno if there is a full-blown police assault, which seems to have weighed heavily on police willingness to move in.

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


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