BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian police fired water cannons and pepper spray at masked protesters on Friday as a demonstration over job losses at ArcelorMittal’s Liege steel plant turned violent.
Masked protesters threw broken paving stones at police who were barricading a street leading to the residence of Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. Traffic in much of central Brussels was paralysed.
Di Rupo on Thursday cancelled a trip to a summit in Latin America to meet with union leaders after ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, said it would shut facilities at Liege, in the east of Belgium, with the likely loss of 1,300 jobs.
Following the meeting, Di Rupo said the government had set up a task force to seek an operator to take over the site.
“This task force will have for a mission ... to find out the possible routes for an industrial solution,” he told reporters.
ArcelorMittal, led by Lakshmi Mittal, one of Britain’s richest men, said it had decided to close the coke mill and six finishing lines permanently after European demand for steel dropped by 8 to 9 percent last year.
About 350 workers gathered outside the prime minister’s residence in central Brussels, according to police.
“We will lose our jobs next week. We want to make the politicians aware,” said Jean Claude Fitipaldi, 35, an electrician at the Liege plant, as he watched the clashes.
It is a further blow for Belgium after last October’s announcement that Ford Motor Co would close its car plant in Genk, some 40 km (25 miles) north of Liege, by the end of 2014.
Planned car plant closures, also including Opel in Bochum, have convinced ArcelorMittal that European steel demand will not return to pre-crisis levels.
“The political world as a whole, at the federal and at the regional level, has declared that it supports our struggle,” Jean-Luc Rader, a representative of the socialist FGTB union, said as he left the meeting.
In France, ArcelorMittal has promised there will be no forced layoffs after the French government threatened to nationalise its plant in Florange after it announced the idling of two blast furnaces.
There was no indication of a comparable compromise in Belgium.
Reporting by Ben Deighton; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Jane Baird