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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 10:26 GMT
Mali 'cut off' by strike
Protest in Bamako
Air Afrique workers marched to the prime minister's office
By Joan Baxter in Mali

Air Afrique - the airline frustrated travellers over the years have dubbed Air Tragique - was shut down in Mali by a 24-hour strike on Wednesday, to protest the lay-off of 2,000 of its employees.

Jeffrey Erikson, the new American director of the troubled African airline, owned in majority by 11 West African countries, says the mass lay-offs are necessary to save the airline.

Air Afrique's current debt is estimated at more than $200m and its fleet that serves 20 destinations and is the only liaison between many West African capitals, has been reduced to eight aircraft.

Mr Erikson has warned the employees that any strike could in fact bring on bankruptcy.

But employees are upset because they have not been told what compensation those laid off will receive, if any.

The strike, did not ground all air traffic in Ivory Coast, headquarters of Air Afrique.

But in land-locked Mali where Air Afrique services all incoming and outgoing air traffic, the airport in the capital, Bamako, was deathly silent, even as Air Afrique workers were mobilising, 15km away at the labour office in the city centre.

Tempers fray

There, tempers were as hot as the midday sun.

About 100 Air Afrique employees, led by leaders of Mali's main labour union, UNTM, and even one Malian worker from Air France, had marched peacefully to the office of Prime Minister Mande Sidibe.

They carried banners calling for the departure of the new Air Afrique director, Jeffrey Erikson.

One banner read simply: The World Bank reinforces poverty.

Despite an official permit for their march, the Air Afrique employees were confronted by two truckloads of gendarmes in full riot gear, who blocked their entry to the prime minister's office.

Spokesperson for the workers, Aichata Haidara, said she was shocked by the authorities' reaction to their march and their cause and hoped it was just a case of "misunderstanding".

She said Air Afrique workers expected African leaders who espoused regional integration to support the cause of the airline and its workers and not, she quipped, the World Bank, which she alleged is trying to liquidate Air Afrique.

The noise and heated tempers at the Labour Office contrasted sharply with the atmosphere at Bamako's Senou International Airport, where a lone Air France aircraft sat idle, unserviced after landing late Tuesday night. The head of airport security was to be found taking what he called "a forced rest" at the silent airport.

But he said he supported the industrial action of Air Afrique, as did many in Bamako.

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