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Spain miners converge on Madrid for mass protests

Spanish coal miners angered by huge cuts in government subsidies for their industry converged on Madrid Tuesday for protest rallies after walking nearly three weeks under a blazing sun from the pits where they eke out a living.

Two columns of miners met up in a Madrid suburb in the evening. They marched downtown at night, trudging along major avenues to the Puerta del Sol, the Spanish capital's most emblematic square, where young demonstrators opposed to austerity cuts prompted by the financial crisis in Spain and Europe camped out last year in defiance of a government ban.

The miners, wearing hard hats with lights turned on like they use them to see underground, were joined by thousands of sympathizers in the city. Some lit flares above highway overpasses and erected banners comparing the miners' plight to Spain's increasingly pressured working class — hit by higher taxes, new regulations making it cheaper to fire workers and funding cuts for education and national health care.

One group of about 160 miners walked all the way from the northern Asturias and Leon regions, as many as 400 kilometers (250 miles) away from Madrid, and about 40 made an almost equally long trek from the northeastern Aragon region. A much bigger rally of miners and their supporters traveling to Madrid aboard hundreds of chartered buses is scheduled for Wednesday.

The miners' complaints include a 63 percent cut in subsidies to coal mining companies struggling to maintain a share of the Spanish energy market against gas-fired electrical plants and renewable energy sources, while fighting to hold their own against cheaper imported coal.

Coal miners make an average of €1,200 euros a month, said Conchi Alonso, a spokeswoman for the UGT union. She described the industry as dwindling to almost nothing. Today there are 8,000-9,000 coal miners in Spain, whereas 20 years ago there were nearly 30,000 in Asturias alone.

Besides cuts in subsidies to the coal companies, Spain's conservative government that took power in December has enacted austerity-minded cuts in funding for miners to learn new professions and for school grants for their children in the generally poor mining regions where they live.

Alonso said the trek from up north since June 22 — she has been with the miners the whole time — has been unforgettable, thanks to the solidarity of people along the way who gave them food, water, shelter and support.

"It has been an utterly unique experience," she said. "To see how people help each other, it has been moving."

Before setting out for Madrid, miners clashed with Spanish police in Leon.

Miners used homemade rockets and slingshots against police, barricading a highway and a rail line in the northern town of Cinera on June 19. At one point, some 80 officers firing rubber bullets were repelled by hundreds of miners and forced to retreat.

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Emilio Morenatti contributed from Madrid.