Police unblock Corsican port as protests flare

French police on Saturday reopened a port blocked by striking workers to allow food and medicines into Corsica, as rising tensions on the island put Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to the test.

Police in riot gear, backed by armoured vehicles, moved into the main port of Ajaccio and removed union members from a ship they had occupied to protest against the privatisation of a ferry operator to the island.

Other ports on the island, where separatists have carried out low-key attacks since the 1970s, remained blocked and the atmosphere was tense as thousands of Corsicans took to the streets to stage protests.

The first of four ferries sent to collect around 15,000 stranded tourists set off from Ajaccio.

The sale of the SNCM ferry company, with the expected loss of around 400 jobs including some in Corsica, has ignited political tensions on the island and violence flared at a demonstration in the northern town of Bastia on Saturday.

Groups of youths wearing balaclavas threw stones and bolts at police when 2,000 protesters -- including several leading separatists -- marched in the town. Police responded with tear gas and one officer among the 500-strong force was seriously injured, officials said.

A rocket was fired into the offices of the city's top representative of the national government on Thursday and protesters set fire to vehicles in the streets.

Members of the Corsican workers' union had occupied the Girolata ship since Wednesday, blocking the port to other craft carrying cargo to the island and preventing the departure of tourists, some of whom spent the night in a gymnasium.

"It was a question of public health. We were getting to the end of our supplies of basic products. We need a certain number of boats to arrive," Prefect Pierre-Rene Lemas, the government's top representative on the island, said on LCI Television.

Two Corsica Ferries ships with a combined capacity for 3,100 passengers and 1,000 cars loaded passengers at Ajaccio and the first left for Toulon. Two others with a capacity of around 2,500 passengers were due to arrive in Corsica later. Some 525 passengers had already managed to leave on board the Girolata.

Airport traffic was operating normally.

French police also intervened on Saturday to clear the mainland southern port of Marseille, including the Lavera and Fos petrochemicals and oil terminals, which had also been blocked by workers protesting the SNCM privatisation.

But docking workers declared a strike in response to the police action and any incoming ships could not be unloaded.

Critics say Villepin has not handled the SNCM privatisation with enough sensitivity given its connection to Corsica and the volatile mood on the island.

Villepin's popularity has been on the rise but the strikes over SNCM and a separate day of union strike action set for Tuesday, are new tests for his conservative UMP government.

"I'm not excusing the behaviour of those who took over the ship but I think the Villepin team is partly responsible for this violence," Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, told the Parisien newspaper.

"It allowed nationalists ... to transform the SNCM problem into a Corsican problem."

Corsican separatists would like independence from the French government, which they say does not respect the scenic island's culture or language or provide enough economic help.

Last October, police used tear gas to quell protests when several hundred Corsicans took to the street to demand the release of about 50 jailed nationalists.

Government policy on how to deal with the island is still unclear, after Corsicans rejected an offer by Paris of limited autonomy in a referendum in 2003. Reuters reported

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