Striking Malawi civil servants threaten to shut airport

State workers in Malawi have told the government and airlines they will shut the main international airport in the capital Lilongwe on Wednesday as part of a week-long public sector strike.

The airport closure would cut off the main air routes to the destitute southern African country, which is serviced by Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.

More than 100,000 public sector workers went on strike last week demanding a 65 percent wage increase - about double the inflation rate - to counter a rising cost of living triggered by a devaluation of the kwacha currency.

"We are joining the strike and are shutting down the airport," Joel Mkandawire, a union leader, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said the government cannot afford to increase wage costs and is negotiating with the striking workers.

"Currently our wage bill is 97 billion kwacha and if we agree to their demands, this will almost triple to 276 billion kwacha, which is equivalent to the whole national budget," Lipenga told Reuters.

The strike has closed schools and paralysed major hospitals, which are already short of health workers and pharmaceuticals.

It also has piled pressure on President Joyce Banda, who took office a year ago and instituted painful economic reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund and donors, whose aid traditionally accounts for about 40 percent of the budget.

"I want to go back home because I can't get any help and I have seen people dying because no nurses or doctors are attending to us," Suzgo Phiri said from her hospital bed where she is seeking treatment for malaria.

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