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Gabon oil workers go on strike

LIBREVILLE, Apr 15 – Gabon\’s main oil workers union late Wednesday launched an "unlimited" strike as the government promised conciliatory measures if negotiations could resume.

The union on Tuesday had given people 24 hours to stock up on petroleum products prior to the launch of a strike that it said "could be long" and would have "disagreeable consequences."

"We warn people, you have 24 hours to supply yourselves," Arnauld Engandji, the spokesman of the National Organisation of Petroleum Employees (ONEP), told a news conference.

Long lines formed outside petrol stations after talks with the government were broken off on Monday.

ONEP planned to strike to protest against "the abusive employment of foreign labour" in Gabon\’s oil industry, where it objects to jobs going to immigrant Africans as well as expatriate Europeans, Engandji said.

The union wants "an overhaul of the system of labour."

"The strike will be tough and could be long," said ONEP\’s secretary general Guy Roger Aurat Reteno. "The consequences will be hard and disagreeable, but we are pushed into situations that are deplorable for everybody."

The union leaders explained that they had walked out of negotiations with the government on Monday. The talks took place while ONEP suspended the strike call it gave in March, in the hope of discussing the minimum service in the sector and foreign labour.

Engandji warned that a strike would effect all sectors using fuel, including the national energy and water company and Libreville airport.

However, he stressed that hospitals, the security forces and the electrical generator that uses natural gas in the economic capital Port-Gentil, would all still be supplied.

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ONEP\’s main complaint concerned foreign labour, where officials said it had made no progress in talks with the government.

"We\’re carrying out studies on companies in the sector. In the first three we studied, we found 800 foreigners, including many without a work permit, both Westerners and citizens of other countries," Engandji told AFP.

In a statement read out on television late Wednesday the government vowed to take conciliatory measures if talks were restarted, including "a temporary restriction on conditions concerning employment in the oil sector."

Labour Minister Maxime Ngozo Issoundou said sanctions would also be taken against civil servants who had flouted the law.

Oil is the main wealth of Gabon, which produces between 220,000 and 240,000 barrels a day. It vies with the Republic of Congo for the place of the 4th largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, behind Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.

According to official estimates, oil should earn Gabon 1.5 billion euros (two billion dollars), accounting for about 42 percent of its budget.

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