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LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's government urged pilots at flag carrier TAP on Thursday to call off a 10-day strike it says would damage tourism and could ruin the airline, scuppering a privatisation process due to start next month.
The strike is set to begin on Friday, at the start of the tourism season and just before a May 15 deadline for bids to buy a majority stake in what is now a wholly state-owned company.
"I am asking the pilots: think of your country, think of tourism, think of the economy, think of your company," Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas said.
"TAP is a very important brand for Portugal. Don't contribute to its destruction, don't carry out a 10-day strike in one month, which would destroy the coffers of any company."
While public sector workers have often gone on strike since Portugal's debt crisis, they have rarely exceeded one day at a time.
The government has estimated the strike would cost 70 million euros (51 million pounds) and affect 300,000 TAP passengers. The tourism sector fears losses of up to 300 million euros.
The pilots say the government has reneged on a 1999 deal meant to give them a stake in the airline in the event of privatisation. They also want higher pay for longer-serving pilots. The government has refused, citing an agreement with the unions in January.
"Faced with the government's intransigence, we have no option (but to strike)," the head of the pilots' union, Helder Santinhos, told journalists on Thursday evening, a few hours before the start of the strike and after meeting with TAP management.
The union earlier blamed the strike on "the systematic breaking of commitments made in the past by the government and by TAP."
Transport secretary Sergio Monteiro said the government would stick to the privatisation process and wait for bids.
The proposals "may be better, worse or there will be none at all, depending on what happens in the next 10 days," he said.
"If the strike has the estimated impact, TAP will not be the same on May 16."
After a strike threat at Christmas, the government guaranteed that future buyers of TAP would be barred from laying off workers en masse as long as the state remained a shareholder.
The government is selling 66 percent in TAP, retaining a 34 percent stake that can be sold in two years.
Editing by Andrei Khalip and Ruth Pitchford