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Honduran president sends military to keep order after protests turn violent

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Thursday sent out the armed forces to impose order after protests against his embattled administration descended into lawlessness overnight in parts of the capital, claiming two lives.

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Speaking at the presidential palace after meeting senior security officials, Hernandez said he had ordered the military to keep roads open as well as to protect private property and the public in the troubled Central American country.

“So the armed forces, the national police and the other defense and security forces are being deployed nationwide and will remain so,” said Hernandez, a conservative ally of the United States.

Earlier in the day, the president said he had reached a deal with truck operators, whose strikes in pursuit of higher rates for moving freight had sparked fuel shortages.

However, demonstrations against Hernandez persisted.

There was widespread unrest on Wednesday evening in Tegucigalpa, including looting, after members of a Honduran riot police force tasked with keeping order withdrew to their quarters to pressure the government for improved benefits.

Protests against Hernandez have been building in recent weeks over planned reforms that his critics argue will lead to privatization of public health and education services.

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The unrest has piled more pressure on Hernandez, whose government has been increasingly unpopular since he changed rules to allow him to run for a second term in 2017. Though he won the election, it was widely criticized by international observers and opponents who say he stole the victory.

Unrest continued on Thursday and military police evicted protesters who had set up barricades and burned tires on a southern access road to the capital, as well as from a downtown boulevard, said security ministry spokesman Jair Meza.

Meza added there were ongoing roadblocks in the southern region of Choluteca and in Colon on the Atlantic Coast, where containers from a unit of the U.S. Dole Food Company were attacked a few weeks ago.

During Wednesday’s unrest 17 people suffered bullet wounds, two of whom two died at the HEU university hospital in Tegucigalpa, said Laura Schoenherr, a hospital spokeswoman.

Hernandez responded by calling up a defense and security council to restore order in the country.

There are at least 25,000 members of the Honduran armed forces, including military police, security experts say.

Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; editing by Dave Graham, Lisa Shumaker and James Dalgleish