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Call to picket finds new ring in Britain's fuel crisis

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In a government communications center in the heart of London, alarmed civil servants last week watched computer screens flash e-mail messages telling them that Britain was in the grip of a new and disturbing crisis.

At a dozen oil refineries and some 50 gasoline distribution centers around the country, bands of disgruntled farmers and truckers wielding mobile phones urged tanker drivers to block deliveries to Britain's 12,500 gas stations. Almost to a man, the drivers agreed.

In a world communicating more with cellphones, the call to picket not only had a striking ring, it exacerbated a crisis where temporary workers with no contractual obligations, and gas stations with limited reserves, brought Britain's wheels to a virtual standstill. In the process, the Blair government was badly tarnished in public opinion polls.

Over the weekend, oil companies were trying to restock gas stations as quickly as possible, but industry spokesmen say, in some areas, it will be two weeks before motorists can be certain of filling their tanks. The result, says Will Hutton, director-general of Britain's Industrial Society, a nonprofit campaigning body based in London that supports British industry. was "a very 21st-century crisis made possible by information technology."

Before the farmers and truckers called off their action last Friday, they had shown that a mere 2,000 protesters equipped with cellphones and a few laptops could drain a nation's gas stations virtually dry and threaten food supplies.

Their protest of spiralling fuel prices, most of it in the form of taxes, rocked Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to its foundations. This week, it is sparking an urgent review of energy security. By Christmas, the government says, tough new civil order laws will be on the statute book to prevent such a crisis from ever happening again.

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