BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Striking taxi drivers threw up barricades at border crossing points and paralyzed traffic in Budapest and other major cities Friday in a protest against a sharp rise in gasoline prices.
Police in the capital evacuated the Industry and Trade Ministry building and cordoned off a subway station following two separate bomb threats believed linked to the strike. No explosives were found.
Taxi drivers around the country walked off the job Thursday night and began setting up roadblocks in spontaneous protests early Friday after the government imposed price increases of up to 70 percent for gasoline.
President Arpad Gonz, in a nationally broacdcast address later Friday, urged the government of Prime Minister Jozsef Antall to rescind the price increases at least until Monday. After the speech, several leaders of the strike told Budapest Radio they would be willing to end the protest if the government would agree to raise gasoline prices by only 50 percent.
Talks between the drivers and government officials began early Friday with little progress reported, amid demands by the workers for a temporary suspension of the price hikes while negotiations continued.
The government backed down on a threat to begin forcibly clearing blockades in Budapest at noon Friday. State-run television said the police action was called off after thousands of pedestrians flocked to the city's Arpad Bridge to support striking drivers who set up barricades there. The crowds cheered when a large column of police deployed at the bridge began to withdraw.
Taxis and trucks blocked all seven bridges across the Danube and sealed off several major intersections in the downtown area. The roads to the airport and a major westbound artery also were barricaded.
'We are protesting on behalf of the whole country because the gasoline price hikes will affect all other prices,' said one taxi driver at the Arpad bridge. Many onlookers also denounced the price hike, saying it would spread poverty and exacerbate inflation, now running at an annual rate of 30 percent.
Sandor Nagy, chairman of the National Association of Trade Unions, called the situation 'grave.'
'The lesson for the government and the parliament is that such decisions cannot be passed without prior coordination with the unions,' he said.
The Hungarian Socialist Party, successors to the former Communist Party, called on the government to immediately rescind the price hikes, which were linked to cutbacks in oil deliveries from the Soviet Union as well as higher crude oil costs stemming from Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Outside the capital, drivers virtually sealed off Miskolc, Hungary's second-largest city, and also blocked access to several smaller towns as well as most major border crossing points, Budapest Radio said. Mass transit came to a standstill in a number of cities, stranding thousands of students and office workers, the broadcast said.
A roadblock in the town of Szekesfehervar, 40 miles south of Budapest, delayed the departure of Red Army troops returning to the Soviet Union from a local army base, prompting a warning from Defense Ministry spokesman Gyorgy Keleti.
Hungarocamion, the country's largest transport company, joined the strike in the afternoon, and its trucks reinforced taxi cab barricades at many intersections. There were fears other companies would also join in the growing national protest.
Emergency vehicles were allowed through the barricades in Budapest with the assistance of the taxi drivers and police, who made no attempt to intervene in one of Hungary's worst transit strikes in recent history. Despite appeals, the drivers refused to allow commercial vehicles to pass, causing shortages of milk and bread in city shops.
Despite the inconveniences, most Budapest residents appeared supportive of the strike, which came as a result of 'a wrong political decision,' Automobile Club general secretary Tibor Balogh told Budapest radio.
Food stores in the capital were filled with shoppers trying to snatch up whatever was available amid fears there would be no fresh food deliveries through the weekend. A few incidents of looting were reported.
Budapest Police Chief Sandor Barna told the radio the authorities would eventually intervene if the crisis was not soon resolved.
The official news agency MTI said police had prepared contingency plans to remove the barricades and restore normal traffic flow if necessary.
Government spokesman Balazs Laszlo described the drivers' protest as 'unlawful,' saying the striking drivers had not given 72 hours notice of their demonstration. Laszlo said the government was in 'no position' to rescind the price hikes.
The first round of negotiations aimed at ending the strike began Friday morning between representatives of the drivers and officials of the National Trade Union Council and Interior Ministry officials.
The talks broke off a few hours later, with the drivers vowing to continue their protest until the government reversed its decision on price inreases.
Interior Minister Balazs Horvath was in charge of the government while Antall was recovering in a hospital after undergoing minor surgery on Thursday.