Ukraine bus drivers strike, block roads in capital

Ukraine bus drivers strike, block roads in capitalKiev  - Hundreds of striking Ukrainian bus drivers blocked key roads in Kiev to protest against increased licensing fees and allegedly oppressive city government regulations, snarling traffic and stranding thousands of motorists.

More than 700 privately-owned buses were parked on Kiev's main thoroughfare the Khreshchatyk by early morning, causing commuter delays of up to an hour.

The bus drivers were demonstrating against transportation licensing fees hikes newly-enacted by Kiev city mayor Leonid Chernovetsky.

Staff from private market funeral homes, and doctors and nurses from city-run health clinics joined the protest.

Police were observing the marchers but made no attempt to interfere.

More than 10,000 marchers and onlookers had gathered in the city centre by mid-morning in Kiev's first major demonstration of the year.

Demonstrators handed out brochures calling for Chernovetsky's resignation, alleging city hall discriminated against small and medium-sized businesses.

A banking tycoon, Chernovetsky was re-elected to Kiev's top job in 2006 on the back of strong support from lower income and Christian voters.

An outspoken evangelical Christian, Chernovetsky has repeatedly accused Kiev's businessmen of dishonesty and greed, and described himself as a defender of the poor and politically disenfranchised.

The Kiev 2009 city budget despite Ukraine's weakening economy will be balanced by newly-introduced taxes and licensing fees targeting the wealthy, Chernovetsky has said.

Chernovetsky-inspired licensing hikes mostly hit private sector owner-operators in the transportation and funeral services sectors.

The mayor's most controversial measure arguably has been to introduce fees for services in city health clinics, to be paid by persons unable to demonstrate minimal household income.

City-employed medical professionals have suffered a dramatic cut to salaries, as Chernovetsky's order has obliged health clinics and hospitals to fund themselves rather than receive support from the city budget.

The Ukrainian capital Kiev and its main street the Khreshchatyk in 2005 was the site of massive anti-government demonstrations during Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

Many Kiev city residents have been badly hurt by a worsening economy and rocketing unemployment, but until Thursday's protest had not taken to the streets during 2009 in large numbers. (dpa)