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Chile: UN rights chief demands probe into protester deaths

October 22, 2019

Hundreds of protesters have defied an emergency decree and confronted police in Santiago, continuing a wave of unrest that has led to at least 15 deaths. Protests led by students began last week over a metro fare hike.

A protester returns a tear gas cannister to police in Santiago, Chile
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Arenas

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for an independent probe into protester deaths during weekend demonstrations in Chile, citing "disturbing allegations" of excessive use of force by security services.

The death toll could be as high as 15 with 44 injured, nine of them seriously, and 283 detained, said Bachelet, citing figures from the National Human Rights Institution on Monday.

More than 1,900 people have been arrested, according to figures from Chile's Interior Ministry, cited by Bachelet.

Protests led by students began last week over a metro fare hike, which has since been canceled. 

Curfew extends to third night

Five people died on Sunday when a garment factory was set aflame by looters in a suburb north of Santiago.

Earlier, officials reported that two people had burned to death in a fire at a store controlled by US retail chain Walmart, while a third person had died in hospital.

Read more: What's behind wealthy Chile's deadly protests?

Police and the military on Sunday used tear gas and water cannon against protesters in the capital, Santiago. Protesters set fire to buses, smashed metro stations, vandalized shops and knocked down traffic lights.

A curfew, intended to keep people "calm and in their homes," was enforced for a third night in a row in Santiago on Monday. Thousands of people in Santiago defied the curfew until soldiers dispersed the crowds with tear gas and water cannon.

President walks back 'war' remark

President Sebastian Pinera struck a more conciliatory tone on Monday after earlier defending his decision to call a state of emergency and deploy thousands of troops.

"If sometimes I have spoken harshly... it's because it makes me indignant to see the damage and pain that this violence causes," he said during a national address on Monday.

Pinera, a 69-year-old conservative billionaire, added that he was willing to meet with opposition leaders to forge a "new social contract" and alleviate inequality.

In an unscheduled talk from military barracks on Sunday, Pinera said the country was "at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits." 

Major transit disruptions

At least two airlines have canceled or rescheduled flights into Santiago, affecting 1,400 passengers on Sunday and Monday. School was suspended in most parts of the metropolitan area for Monday. 

Nearly all the public transport serving the capital city's 7 million people was paralyzed on Sunday. Cynthia Cordero told The Associated Press (AP) that she had to walk 20 blocks to reach a pharmacy to buy diapers, only to find it had been burned out.

"They don't have the right to do this," she said, adding it was right to protest "against the abuses, the increases in fares, against bad education and an undignified pension, but not to destroy."

Read more: Anger rising over Chile's private pensions

Passengers crowd the terminal at Santiago Airport
There were chaotic scenes at Santiago Airport as flights were cancelledImage: Imago-Images/Aton Chile/D. Yankovic

With the public transit system depleted by the destructive protests, people lined up at gas stations over the weekend as they tried to fill up for the upcoming work week.

Subway system chief Louis De Grange told AP that workers would try to ensure one line was up and running by Monday, but that it could take weeks or months for the other four to resume service.

On Saturday, in an attempt to quell the unrest, Pinera announced he was suspending the metro fare increase that prompted the violent demonstrations. But rioting continued, while the president pledged to look for "solutions" to "reduce excessive inequalities" in the country.

Pinera acknowledged that demonstrators had "good reasons" to protest. "But nobody, nobody, has a right to behave with the brutal illegal violence of those who have destroyed, set fire to or damaged more than 78 stations of the metro of Santiago," he said.

Read more: Is there a right-wing surge in South America?

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest after a week of demonstrations and riots.
Thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday after a week of demonstrations and riotsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/F. Lavoz

One week of unrest

The protests began on Monday over an increase in metro fares from the equivalent of $1.12 to $1.16 (an increase of €.02), but have morphed into an expression of broader discontent at the cost of living in one of Latin America's wealthiest and most unequal nations.

What started as mass fare-dodging led by students turned into violence and vandalism over the course of the week, with fires set to metro stations and damage done to other parts of the capital.

About 9,400 military personnel have been deployed to keep the peace, according to the Department of Defense.

The rioting has led to millions of dollars in damage to burned buses and destroyed metro stops, office buildings and storefronts.

jcg,kw, mmc/ng (AP, AFP, dpa)

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