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Guadeloupe On The Verge Of Rebellion

The French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe was on the verge of rebellion, a political leader said Tuesday after stone-throwing protesters set cars and buildings ablaze, forced the international airport to close and clashed with police.

Nearly four weeks of work stoppages and demonstrations for lower prices and higher pay have caused thousands of tourists to flee or cancel holidays on the normally tranquil island, prompting many hotels to close and cruise ships to head elsewhere.

"It is a political crisis, an institutional crisis and we are on the brink of sedition," Guadeloupe's Regional Council President Victorin Lurel told France-Info radio.

From Paris, France's Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the protests had caused "degradation, devastation and confrontations" on Guadeloupe and its sister island, Martinique, where most shops and offices have been closed by the protests.

She urged "calm, responsibility and restraint" and said she hoped for a resumption of talks with protesters that broke down last week.

Police said they arrested 18 people overnight as protesters burned cars, a library and a boat-rental store in Sainte-Anne and Point-a-Pitre. An official, speaking on the standard condition of anonymity, said at least three officers suffered minor wounds due to gunshots fired by looters taking advantage of the chaos.

Guadeloupe's main airport was closed Tuesday because workers could not pass through barricaded and debris-clogged roads, said Guadeloupe's top appointed official, Nicolas Desforges, and several flights were canceled.

About 450,000 people live on Guadeloupe, a verdant hilly island boasting white-sand beaches that is an integral part of France. Behind much of the unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique is resentment by Afro-Caribbeans, many of whom are descendants of slaves, that the vast majority of wealth and land are in the hands of offspring of colonists.

Paris has refused to budge on strikers' demands for a 200 euro ($250) monthly raise for low-paid workers who now make roughly 900 euros ($1,130) a month. But business leaders in Martinique have agreed to lower prices by 20 percent on 100 products, including food items.

Strikers want prices cut on nearly all supermarket products - a step that Stephane Hayot, a spokesman for the National Union of Wholesale Distributors, said "would represent our death sentence" by forcing them to sell at prices that don't cover their costs.

Police detained 50 demonstrators on Monday after they were pelted by stones as they tried to take down barricades. Roadblocks were being gradually lifted Tuesday morning and a trickle of vehicle traffic was resuming, the police official said.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris issued Americans in Guadeloupe and Martinique to avoid crowds.

"Most commercial activities have ceased, and there are mounting shortages of food, water, and power on both islands," the embassy said. "In Guadeloupe there are reports of increasing tensions, with armed gangs blockading routes and targeting residents and tourists. There have been no reports of U.S. citizens being specifically targeted."

In Martinique, taxi and bus drivers blocked streets on Tuesday and honked their horns as they arrived at city hall in the capital, Fort-de-France.

Lurel warned that the islands were heading toward "radicalization, a rise in extremism."

"We have the impression that we have been abandoned, that there is an organized indifference," he told the radio station.

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