Churches burned as Chile’s anniversary rallies escalate

2020-10-19T002310Z_1806543676_RC2CLJ99UD9A_RTRMADP_3_CHILE-PROTESTS-ANNIVERSARY

Tens of thousands of Chileans gathered in the central square of Santiago to mark the one-year anniversary of mass protests that left more than 30 dead and thousands wounded, with peaceful rallies Sunday morning that turned into riots and looting.

People gathered early in the day in demonstrations in the center and in cities throughout Chile that gained size and joy through the evening. Many shouted signs and rainbow-colored homemade banners calling for a “yes” vote next Sunday in a referendum on whether to scrap the country’s dictatorship constitution, an important demand from the 2019 protests.

Although the demonstrations were largely peaceful early on, they were marred by rising violence, looting of supermarkets and clashes with police throughout the capital later in the day. Fire truck sirens, burning barricades on highways and fireworks on streets in the center increased a sense of chaos in some neighborhoods.

Interior Minister Victor Perez spoke late in the evening, praising the early, peaceful rallies as he blew up the chaos at night. He called on Chileans to settle their differences by voting in the forthcoming October 25 constitutional referendum.

“Those who commit these acts of violence do not want Chileans to solve our problems in democratic ways,” Perez told reporters, promising to punish those who crossed the line Sunday.

Early in the day, an angry mob mocked and threatened the mayor of a Communist Party. Later, masked individuals fired at a police headquarters and church. Vandals attacked another church in Santiago early in the evening, burning its spiers and suffocating side streets with smoke.

More than 15 metro stations were temporarily closed amid the unrest. Police fired tear gas and water cannons into clashes with sometimes violent, hooded and masked people.

Last year’s protests, which began on October 18, raged until mid-December as Chileans rallied nationwide to call for reforms of pension, health and education systems.

Rebellion and looting resulted in billions of dollars in damage and loss to the country’s businesses and infrastructure. The unrest saw the military take to the streets for the first time since the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Sunday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck. 18, far less than the biggest protests in 2019.

In the last few days, however, minor demonstrations and isolated incidents of violence have reappeared in Chile as the capital’s 6 million citizens emerge from months of confinement following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most protesters on Sunday wore masks, but many could be seen in tight groups, raising concerns about a potential health risk.

(REUTERS)