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Ukraine: Striking Miners Stage Protest in Kyiv

Kyiv, 12 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Several hundred striking miners reached Kyiv on Thursday at the end of a grueling month-long march to press home their demands for payment of massive wage arrears.

Their demonstration outside government buildings marked the culmination of a tortuous 500-kilometer march from the Dnipropetrovsk region. The march attracted widespread sympathy along the way.

Banging their orange helmets on the pavement in the angry gesture of protest, the miners demanded their long-overdue wages.

As in other demonstrations over the past weeks the protest was peaceful. There were no violent outbreaks. Police reinforcements were called to the scene, but they kept a low profile.

The miners are clearly mindful of public support and have gone out of their way to portray themselves as championing demands for fair treatment not just for themselves but also for thousands of other public sector employees who have not been paid.

"The miners did not come to Kyiv to take money away from pensioners, students, invalids, teachers and medics," march leaders said in a statement. "We came to make the government return the money we have legally earned, to defend our constitutional right to be paid for our labor."

The protest march from coal-producing regions of eastern Ukraine began in mid-May, following scattered strikes that have idled dozens of mines.

Forty-five of Ukraine's 276 mines were striking yesterday, union leaders said.

The miners are owed on average eight months in back wages. The overall wage debt stands at 2.2 billion hryvna ($1.1 billion), according to the Coal Industry Ministry.

The miners also want wage and pension increases and more funding for the coal industry, plagued by numerous accidents caused by aging equipment and neglect for safety rules. More than 170 miners have died in accidents this year.

The cash-strapped government blames managers in the coal industry for many of the problems. It has recently provided some funds to coal regions and promised to give an additional 600 million hryvna ($300 million) allocated by parliament to help the struggling workers.

On the streets of Kyiv, the miners were greeted with public sympathy. Dozens of people joined the miners in rallies in the city. The miners say they will return home as soon as back wages are paid.

Ukraine has experienced economic decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There is no immediate improvement in sight.