May 17, 2016 / 10:52 AM / a year ago

Striking Belgian prison guards burst into ministry

Belgian prison officers demonstrate behind the Saint-Gilles prison where guards have been on strike for three weeks in a protest over pay cuts and working conditions in Brussels, Belgium, May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Striking prison warders burst into the Belgian Justice Ministry building on Tuesday, breaking windows and trashing fittings before being forced out by baton-wielding riot police firing pepper spray.

Several dozen protesters, some covering their faces with scarves, broke through the main door of the building in Brussels during a trade union demonstration on the street outside. They chanted and waved banners before scuffling with helmeted riot police who arrived to eject them.

“The protesters caused a lot of damage,” said Justice Minister Koen Geens, a main target for the warders’ anger after three weeks of strike action. “This is not right.”

However, he agreed to more talks with the unions in a bid to end action that has already forced the government to send in troops to help run understaffed jails after legal complaints from prisoners that they are being denied basic amenities.

At a time when the center-right coalition is under pressure over a lack of funding for security services which failed to prevent a Belgian-based Islamic State cell mounting the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, critics say overcrowded prisons are another symptom of excessive cost-cutting and inefficiency.

The country’s most senior judge waded into the debate on Sunday when he declared on television that a lack of budget for the justice system meant Belgium was “becoming a rogue state”.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Angus MacSwan

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