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Russian Steelworkers Suspend Hunger Strike Over Wages

ZLATOUST, Russia (Reuters) -- Sixteen Russian steelworkers have suspended a hunger strike over wages after management agreed to some demands, but threatened to resume the rare show of dissent over spreading economic hardship.

The strikers shook hands with each other and called their families to say they would be coming home after five days sleeping on the floor of the union office.

"ESTAR agreed to pay 30 percent of the sum they owe the workers by March 18," protest organizer Alexander Negrebetskikh said. "We are suspending the hunger strike, but if they don't pay, we will resume."

Negrebetskikh showed Reuters a letter from the director of Zlatoust steel mill, owned by private steel group ESTAR, promising approximately 6.7 million roubles in pay for October-December 2008.

The strikers at the ESTAR plant in Zlatoust, a Ural mountains city of 200,000 that was home for centuries to traditional ironworks, want better pay for workers furloughed as the plant's workload drops.

Negrebetskikh said that once they were paid promised back pay through the end of 2008, talks would turn to 2009 pay.

Protest has been rare as Russia's metals industry, facing falling prices and shrinking orders, slashes staff, but the Zlatoust protest is a sign that not all of Russia's metalworkers will take it quietly.

A Ministry of Industry and Trade report, obtained by Reuters, said Russia's ferrous and nonferrous metals industry could shed 100,000 jobs as demand for its products falls.

About 800,000 Russians lost their jobs in December and January, taking the total number of unemployed to more than 6 million, or 8.1 percent of the working popoulation.

Steelmakers have been particularly affected as construction projects have ground to a halt and consumers buy fewer new cars.

Severstal, the country's largest steel producer, said on March 11 that it planned to cut up to 9,500 jobs in Russia.