TARGU JIU, Romania (AP) _ Thousands of striking coal miners headed for the capital today in buses, trucks and on foot to protest low wages and possible layoffs, defying government efforts to halt their advance.

An estimated 4,000 miners staged an early-morning rally in this central Romanian city on the third day of their march to Bucharest, shouting ``Down with the government!'' and ``We won't be lied to.''

Some 400 miners set off on foot to the capital, 150 miles to the east, where police were on alert. In two previous visits to the capital in 1990 and 1991, nine people were killed, dozens injured and one government was forced to resign in days of street violence.

Twenty-three people _ 15 miners and nine security officers _ were injured in the first two days of the march, when riot police tried to stop miners by spraying tear gas, throwing smoke bombs and erecting roadblocks.

Hundreds of riot troops in dozens of large military vehicles stationed near Horezu, 50 miles east of Targu Jiu, planned to try to stop the miners' advance today, according to broadcast reports.

Miners who rode open trucks waved flags and cheered. They are led by the fiery Miron Cozma, whom authorities accuse of having a political agenda. Cozma is a member of an opposition extremist Greater Romania Party.

``We are on a peaceful march,'' said Romeo Beja, a miners' leader on private television station PRO-TV. ``Our aim in going to the capital is to get what we are demanding.''

Miners are demanding 35 percent wage hikes and the equivalent of $10,000 severance pay if they are laid off, which the government says it cannot afford.

Calling the miners' demands ``absurd,'' Prime Minister Radu Vasile said Tuesday that Romania is burdened by debts of $3 billion it has to pay back this year.

He said the 16-day-old dispute is politically motivated and claimed miners are jeopardizing Romania's future and credibility.