November 22, 2019 / 4:23 PM / 17 days ago

Chile's interior minister: turning down heat on streets won't make us less accountable

By Aislinn Laing and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

A demonstrator is detained by riot police during a protest against Chile's government, in Santiago, Chile November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Pablo Sanhueza

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s interior minister on Friday made an appeal for peace and the “recovery of public order” after a fresh round of protests and riots around the country left shops and public buildings looted and burned, the capital’s transport system disrupted and at least 100 more people injured.

Gonzalo Blumel said turning down the temperature of street protests did not mean reducing the pressure on government to resolve issues of social justice and human rights.

“These are all fundamental obligations of the State,” he said. “We make a profound and sincere call to all social and political forces to make an alliance for peace.”

Several days of intense unrest saw a hospital in the northern port city of Coquimbo being looted and set on fire in the early hours of Friday, clashes between police and protesters in southern Concepcion, multiple metro stations closed in Santiago due to wildcat protests and a shopping mall burned down on the capital’s outskirts.

A football match between Unión La Calera and Deportes Iquique, two Chilean first division teams, at Santiago’s La Florida stadium also had to be suspended after hooded men broke into the venue and invaded the pitch, forcing the players to seek shelter in the locker room.

In the central coastal city of Valparaiso, demonstrators confronted police armed with tear gas and water canons - the use of rubber bullets has been suspended due to the level of casualties - as they tried to break into the country’s congress.

The region’s governor, Jorge Martinez, said the wave of clashes resulted in 75 businesses vandalized, 225 people arrested and 42 police officers injured.

“To the early hours of this morning, the region has suffered its worst days of vandalism, destruction and harm,” he said in a press briefing on Friday. “I think we’ve reached a breaking point at which all citizens must say no, no more violence.”

Chile has seen a month of both peaceful protests and violent riots over low pensions and salaries, the high cost of living, and security force abuses.

The unrest has left at least 26 dead, 7,000 detained and 3,800 injured, according to authorities and rights groups.

‘WE NEED MORE’

On Friday, the government issued a furious rebuttal of an Amnesty International report claiming that excessive force was “intentionally” used on protesters to “punish” them for taking to the streets.

Amnesty International said in the report published on Thursday that it had confirmed five deaths at the hands of security forces, as well as credible evidence of protesters being shot at with live ammunition, sexually abused, tortured, beaten, and run over.

There was a repeated pattern of abuse that suggested intention, it said.

Defense minister Alberto Espina told journalists outside La Moneda presidential palace that the claims were “extraordinarily serious and absolutely false” as well as “lacking in proof.”

The Amnesty report is expected to be followed in two or three weeks by one by UN human rights investigators who completed a fact-finding mission to Chile on Friday.

In a statement, the team said they had interviewed more than 200 people including police, soldiers and alleged victims of rights abuses and heard “many disturbing reports.”

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights commissioner and former Chilean president, told Chilean students in London on Thursday that they would be issuing “a broad diagnosis and recommendations.”

“When you hear there are so many people with eye injuries ... my pre-judgment is that (security force) protocol isn’t being followed,” she said.

Pinera has sought to address protesters’ grievances, sending a raft of fresh legislation to parliament covering pensions, the cost of medication and minimum wages. The country’s normally fractious political parties have also agreed to work together on a new constitution.

Slideshow (3 Images)

However, protests continue, in smaller numbers and with intense violence at their fringes, driven by mistrust that politicians will keep their promises to bring significant change, and enduring fury over the police handling of demonstrators.

Simoney Arancibia, 32, a municipal worker in Santiago, told Reuters she would continue mobilizing over poor education and pensions. “It is true that there was a political agreement, but for now we do not see concrete answers,” she said. “We need more.”

Port workers have announced a strike starting on Monday, potentially hampering exports from Chile’s key mining, forestry and fruit industries.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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