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(Reuters) - Police thwarted an attempt by hundreds of Vietnamese to reach a court in a remote town on Tuesday to sue a Taiwanese company, group members said, in the second such bid in three weeks to seek compensation for one of Vietnam's worst environmental disasters.
Tens of millions of fish died in April in an incident the government blamed on the discharge of toxic waste into the sea by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a subsidiary of Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics, which is one of Vietnam's biggest foreign investors.
The poisoning has sparked an unprecedented run of angry protests, a challenge for a communist government that is known for suppressing dissent and rarely faces large demonstrations.
Sporadic protests continue despite Formosa Ha Tinh's promise of half a billion dollars in compensation and its admission that its $10.6 billion steel plant caused fish deaths along a 200-km (120-mile) stretch of coastline.
About 1,000 people started a journey in buses and taxis from central Nghe An province on Tuesday to reach the court in Ha Tinh, where the plant is located, but were told by police to scale down their number, according to Roman Catholic priest and group leader Dang Huu Nam.
Speaking by phone to Reuters, Nam said the number shrank to 40 and made some progress before being stopped again by police, who ordered people out of their vehicles. He said some were beaten by police.
The information provided by Nam could not be independently verified by Reuters, and efforts to reach provincial authorities were unsuccessful.
"I thought the authorities would try to stop us, but I didn't think so many people would be mobilized," he said, adding that citizens supportive of their plight had paid for their taxi costs.
Formosa is a major investor in Vietnam and its listed units include Formosa Plastics Corp and Formosa Chemicals & Fiber Corp. Formosa has said it has already transferred the $500 million to the government.
Tuesday's incident came after 545 people, mostly fishermen, traveled 200 km (120 miles) by bus to Ha Tinh on Sept. 26 to sue Formosa. Activists said the court accepted only 506 files and later rejected all of them.
Another group member, Paul Tran Minh Nhat, gave a similar account of what took place on Tuesday.
Images were widely distributed on social media showing what appeared to be police stopping the group. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the images and the issue was not covered by local media.
Nguyen Huy Trung, a member of Ha Tinh provincial police, said a group of Christians had sought to reach Ha Tinh from Nghe An. When asked by phone whether the police stopped the group, Trung said they were just regulating traffic.
Writing by Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Mark Trevelyan