Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi hinted yesterday at sending in the military to break up wildcat strikes which have paralysed Alitalia, the Italian national airline.
"We may get to that point, but we will try to avoid it because we know tragedies could happen," he said.
Berlusconi played down those comments, saying the existence of Alitalia was a matter of national pride for Italy.
Berlusconi said Alitalia had to push ahead with a restructuring plan and face down wildcat strikers who have paralysed the airline over the past week.
Alitalia warned customers that up to 250 flights would be cancelled or delayed during the day because of the protest by workers opposed to splitting off the airline's ground operations -- a core part of CEO Giancarlo Cimoli's restructure plan.
''I don't think it's possible not to go ahead with the plan presented by Cimoli to international investors, not without reimbursing those investors with the capital they put in,'' Berlusconi told RAI radio.
The strike, which has forced Alitalia to cancel hundreds of flights over the past six days, has come just weeks after the company raised 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) from a do-or-die capital increase.
Berlusconi is walking a delicate political line ahead of a general election scheduled for April 9. As a centre-right economic liberal he backs the modernisation plan, but is also wary of any prolonged, bitter dispute in the run-up to the vote.
Alitalia's shares fell nearly 9 per cent on Monday after Labour Minister Roberto Maroni said bankruptcy for Alitalia ''would not be as bad as all that'', suggesting that state may not always be there to prop up the ailing flag carrier.
Berlusconi played down those comments, saying the existence of Alitalia was a matter of national pride for Italy. At 1025 GMT (1555 IST) share were up 2.68 per cent at 1.071 euros, boosted by his comments following a 3 per cent fall at the open.
The strikes have stranded thousands of passengers at airports around Italy and will certainly punch another hole in the accounts of the loss-making company.
The strikers are concerned for the future of ground operations which, under Cimoli's plan, have been split off from the main flying part of the airline into a company called AZ Services, controlled by state-owned holding company Fintecna.
Ministers are due to meet union leaders on Wednesday. ''We need to see in the coming days we can get an answer which takes account of citizens' rights,'' said Berlusconi.
The state, which has come to Alitalia's rescue many times in the past, has reduced its stake to less than 50 per cent after the recent capital hike.
* Wildcat walkouts over restructuring ground flights in Italy: