Spain may extend state of alert over strike: Zapatero

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Spain's government may extend a 15-day state of alert it imposed in response to a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Monday.

"The government has issued a decree for a period of a state of alert to ensure normality," which is due to continue for 15 days, he told reporters.

"Depending on how the situation develops, the government will take the decision to extend the measure, and will of course do it taking public opinion into consideration and in conjunction with political parties" in parliament.

He gave no further details, but the newspaper El Mundo said the government is considering extending the state of alert for two months in order to train military personnel to take over the jobs of those who have been fired or are facing sanctions.

The controllers called in sick en masse on Friday, rapidly shutting down the nation's airspace at the start of one of Spain's busiest holiday weekends in a protest over working hours and benefits and disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people.

Air services returned to normal on Sunday a day after the government declared the 15-day state of alert which placed the controllers under military command with the threat of jail terms for refusing orders.

The airport authority AENA has opened disciplinary proceedings against 442 controllers.

El Mundo said Monday the government is ready to maintain the state of alert for two months, "the period considered necessary to prepare the first group of military controllers to stand in for the civilian professionals who have been fired, severely sanctioned or facing criminal prosecution.

"The government does not want to lift the (state of emergency) in 15 days, which would leave it at the mercy of these same controllers in the middle of the Christmas period."

It said Zapatero will therefore address parliament on Thursday to explain the reasons for the state of alert "and in two weeks he will ask the lower house of parliament to extend it."

According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain earning an average of 200,000 euros a year.

The government had drastically cut their overtime hours and pay rates in February to trim incomes which rose in some cases as high as 600,000 euros a year.

Controllers had abandoned their posts Friday in a surprise reaction against a government ruling that their maximum work hours of 1,670 hours a year -- 32 hours a week -- exclude non-aeronautical work.

© 2010 AFP

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