Chile strike erupts in violence

Santiago - A 48-hour national strike got off to a violent start in Chile on Wednesday, as demonstrators clashed with police around Santiago in the worst unrest of Sebastian Pinera's 17-month old presidency.

In support of university students who have been holding weeks of smaller protests and demanding education reforms, demonstrators set bonfires to block access to major roads and threw stones at passing buses shattering windows in the vehicles, as Wednesday's strike got under way.

Police responded firmly using water cannons and tear gas to break up roadblocks on main thoroughfares.

By late afternoon, 348 people had been arrested, and 36 injured, presidential spokesperson Andres Chadwick said.

Pinera accused strike organisers of "trying to hurt Chile".

"A protest march is one thing, it is quite another thing to attempt to paralyse the country," he said. "When the country is paralysed, nobody wins, everybody loses."

Solidarity strike

In the capital Santiago, some shops and government offices closed and morning rush hour traffic was disrupted, as the city's transit system reported that just 27% of the metropolitan railway's usual passengers turned out.

The strike was called by Chile's leading labour union, the 780 000-strong Confederacion General de Trabajadores (CGT), in support of university student demands for far-reaching education reforms that would eliminate a voucher system that supports private universities and provide free, higher quality university education at state schools.

The protests on Wednesday and Thursday also include demands for improved working conditions for hospital and emergency services workers.

There were clashes early on Wednesday between protesters and police in impoverished neighbourhoods on the edge of Santiago, while overnight thousands of Chileans filled the streets banging pots in support of the protest.

Last week the Pinera government made an offer - the third since the crisis began - to increase grants and reduce interest rates to help students finance their education, but the proposal was rebuffed by student and union leaders.

The demonstrations pose a major challenge for Pinera, Chile's first conservative president since the dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose military government created the current education system in the 1970s.

Nothing for free

Pinera has seen his popularity sink to an all-time low of 26% during the ongoing standoff.

"We all want education, healthcare, and many more things for free, but I want to remind them that nothing is free in this life. Someone has to pay," Pinera said last week.

But despite widespread support for the strikers, officials said the labour action had so far failed in its central goal of paralysing transit and commerce in the Chilean capital, where business for the most part, continued as usual early on Wednesday.

The Government said just 5.5% of public employees joined the strike. Ubilla said that "a great silent majority of millions of Chileans have come to work or school to make their activities as normal".

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