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Police Clash With Striking Subway Workers In Brazil Just Days Before World Cup (PHOTOS)

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BRAZIL SUBWAY
Striking subway workers and members of the MTST (Homeless Workers' Movement), demonstrate on June 9, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The five-day-old strike has already caused massive traffic jams in Brazil's largest city as its new stadium prepares to welcome more than 60,000 fans for Thursday's Brazil-Croatia game. The Metro's workers demand 12.2 percent salary raise. AFP PHOTO/NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images) | NELSON ALMEIDA via Getty Images

SAO PAULO (AP) -- Brazilian police and striking subway workers clashed Monday in a central commuter station, with union officials threatening to maintain the work stoppage through the World Cup opening match here this week.

Authorities are deeply worried about the strike because the subway is the main means of transportation for World Cup fans who will attend Thursday's opening match when Brazil takes on Croatia. The stadium is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of central Sao Paulo, where most tourists stay.

There were hopes the work stoppage may come to an end -- early Monday afternoon union officials were sitting down for the first time in days with government authorities in an attempt to end the strike. Last year, a fare increase was reversed after violent protests broke out.

Earlier Monday, riot police firing tear gas forced about 100 striking workers out of the station as the strike threw Sao Paulo's normally congested traffic into chaos for a fifth day. About half of the city's subway stations were operating, but with greatly diminished service.

"This is the way they negotiate, with tear gas and repression," said Alexandre Roland, a union leader, as he and others regrouped outside the station after confronting riot police.

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Altino Prazeres, president of the union leading the strike, said as he marched along with workers on a street in central Sao Paulo that "we are not interested in ruining the World Cup."

"I love soccer! I support our national team. The point is not to stop the Cup," he said. "We want to resolve this today and all are willing to negotiate."

Prazeres said workers would settle for nothing less than a 12.2-percent wage hike, which authorities have flatly refused. A labor court has ruled that the salary rise should be 8.7 percent.

A spokeswoman for the subway company declined to answer questions.

Sao Paulo state's transport secretary Jurandir Fernandes told local reporters Monday that 60 of the striking workers had been fired, but union officials said they knew nothing about any dismissals.

After being tossed out of the subway station by police early Monday, striking workers marched in the city center and about 400 gathered in from of the state government building housing the transportation secretariat.

A Sao Paulo labor court over the weekend fined the union $175,000 for the first four days of the strike and said it would add $220,000 for each additional day the work stoppage continued.

So far, the government-controlled company that runs the subways is offering an 8-percent increase, and says it cannot go higher because fares haven't been raised for two years.

The standoff with the Sao Paulo transport workers is the latest unrest to hit Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup. Teachers remain on strike in Rio de Janeiro and routinely rally and block streets. Police in several cities have gone on strike, but are back at work now.

The work stoppages are in addition to a steady drumbeat of anti-government protests that began a year ago during massive rallies in scores of Brazilian cities. Those protests blasted government spending for the World Cup and demanded big improvements in woeful public services like hospitals, schools, security and transportation.

The protests have greatly diminished in size but not in frequency. Demonstrations have repeatedly erupted in Brazil's metro areas in recent months, with even a small number of protesters blocking main roadways and severely disrupting traffic.

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Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman and Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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