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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean police on Thursday evicted student protesters from 21 Santiago schools that will be used as polling stations for weekend primary elections, a day after a massive march for education reform in the capital.
The Andean country's powerful student movement has staged massive protests to demand free and improved education in the stratified country, with thousands of students taking over schools and universities intermittently over the past two years.
"We've restored order," Interior Minister Andres Chadwick said in a televised speech on Thursday morning. "As dialogue didn't yield expected results, and given that we are 72 hours away from the start of the primaries, as the government we had the obligation to avoid any disturbances."
He said most of the evictions in the capital had been peaceful, though 122 people were arrested and one police officer had been injured.
Local television showed police bursting into schools barricaded with chairs and showed isolated clashes between youth and police early Thursday, a day after a march for education reform drew tens of thousands to the capital. Thousands also marched on Wednesday in the southern city of Concepcion.
The government says occupying schools hinders democracy and could spook voters on Sunday. Student leaders counter that the political establishment in Chile, ranked the most unequal country of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, doesn't represent them.
"This is continuing to seek out confrontation and not profound solutions to the problem of education," said former student leader Camila Vallejo, who is now running for a seat in Congress. Others likened the intervention to the type of tactic used during the 1973-90 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Former center-left President Michelle Bachelet was expected to cruise to victory in her bloc's primary, clearing the way for her victory in the November 17 general election.
She has promised to work towards free education in the world No. 1 copper producer.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Antonio de la Jara; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Doina Chiacu