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Empty stores, shuttered gas posts in Brazil truckers' strike

Empty stores, shuttered gas posts in Brazil truckers' strike

RIO DE JANEIRO — A truckers' strike in Brazil left a patchwork of empty gas stations and barren supermarket shelves Saturday as drivers appeared unmoved by the government's threats to use force or fine people who didn't comply.

Police forces conducted operations to clear blocked roads and military vehicles provided escorts for trucks transporting emergency fuel to police stations and army facilities in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

About half of the roadblocks throughout the country had been cleared by the afternoon, as truckers who encountered police complied to move, said a Rio police spokesman Jose Helio.

However, many truckers still refused to return to work. Some remained in their 18-wheelers along the highways, while others moved their vehicles to rest areas.

The impact was being felt all over.

"There's no food, no fuel," said Joao Roberto, an Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro who was parked at an empty gas station.

Roberto said he filled up four days ago, but his tank was almost empty.

On Friday, President Michel Temer authorized the military to use force if need be. Moving against the truckers, however, could lead to violence and wouldn't solve the larger problems of getting vehicles off the roads and getting drivers back to work.

The Brazilian Association of Truckers, one of the largest transportation unions, called on its members Friday to remove their trucks from roadways but "continue to protest peacefully." The union and several others did not return calls seeking comment on Saturday.

Perishable fruits and vegetables all but disappeared from local supermarket shelves. At several Hortifruti chain stories in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, staff filled vegetable crispers and shelves with soda cans and bags of rice.

A popular Saturday farmers market, normally teeming with fruits and vegetables along several blocks, only had a fraction of the goods. Many vendors at the market were charging double, saying they had to pay more to buy what they could.

"This strike is killing us," said Manuel Reis, a watermelon vendor who only sold about 880 pounds (400 kilograms) of the fruit on Saturday, about half of his usual.

Many gas stations nationwide have run out of diesel and gasoline and local managers say they don't know when to expect more deliveries.

Bus and metro services in several Brazilian cities were reduced and several flights, mostly domestic, were cancelled for a third straight day on Saturday. Cities in the interior, further away from refineries along the Brazilian coast, have been particularly hard hit.

The strike followed complaints from truck drivers about the rising cost of diesel oil, which has gone up sharply in recent months as world oil prices rise and the Brazilian real weakens against the U.S. dollar.

On Thursday, the government and several transportation unions said an agreement had been reached to suspend the stoppage for 15 days to negotiate a solution. But many truckers balked, saying they did not feel represented and did not trust the government to follow through on promises.

The work stoppage comes as Latin America's largest economy struggles to move beyond a deep recession and many Brazilians are furious with politicians in the wake of a mega scandal involving kickback scheme between construction companies and elected officials.

Economists say there is no easy way to solve the impasse, as rising world oil prices leave the government little room to manoeuvr . Significantly lowering the price would require steep cuts in taxes, particularly difficult at a time when many states, such as Rio de Janeiro, have their own fiscal crises.

"I do not believe that the price of oil will go down and I don't think that the real will gain on the U.S. dollar," said Andre Perfeito, chief economist at Spinelli CVMC, a Sao Paulo-based investment firm. "So this is an economic problem that will get worse."

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Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

C.H. Gardiner, The Associated Press