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Belgian workers strike over pension reform

A worker, dressed as a sorcerer, wears a placard which reads, "no witchhunt to root out early retirement", during a demonstration in Brussels yesterday.

A worker, dressed as a sorcerer, wears a placard which reads, "no witchhunt to root out early retirement", during a demonstration in Brussels yesterday.

Workers across Belgium went on strike yesterday, paralysing public transport, halting production lines, and disrupting port activities in protest against government plans to raise the age for early retirement.

Tens of thousands of workers from the country's three largest unions converged on the capital to demonstrate against plans to raise the age to 60 years from 58 in the second nation-wide strike in less than a month.

In a carnival atmosphere, protesters blew whistles, waved red and green flags, and lit fire crackers as they marched down a major avenue in downtown Brussels.

"If the government does not respond favourably... the atmosphere will become fiercer," Socialist union leader Xavier Verboven told local VRT television. "November is risking to become a very turbulent month... This is a signal to the government."

Unions reject plans to raise the retirement age, saying it would prevent the young and unemployed from finding work by keeping older workers at their jobs.

The centre-left government refuses to budge, insisting it must head off a pensions time-bomb as a wave of people born after World War II approach retirement age.

It warns it risks overstretching its budget by 2010 if it cannot keep people working longer. Belgium has one of the lowest employment rates in the EU.

Although the strike brought buses, trams and subways to a standstill, trains operated normally at the request of the unions, who wanted their members to come to the protest march.

Charleroi airport, south of Brussels, shut down for the day, forcing Irish low-cost airline Ryanair to cancel flights.

Shipping lines faced delays at the port of Antwerp as sea pilots failed to show up to work.

The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), one of the port's biggest users, said the departure of its next ship had been delayed by at least 12 hours.

Brussels international airport said flights were on schedule although picketers had tried to block entry to a cargo area.

Some companies were severely hit by the strike. Metals and specialty materials company Umicore saw production halt at its major plants.

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