Brazil: Striking police, soldiers clash

2012-02-07 12:45

Sao Paulo - Soldiers clashed with supporters of striking police in Brazil's third-largest city on Monday, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the feet of people trying to join officers occupying the Bahia state legislature building.

The murder rate in Salvador, Bahia has more than doubled since the strike began a week ago - but violence has quickly diminished since troops were sent in over the weekend.

About one-third of the state's 30 000 police are on strike, authorities say. The US Embassy in Brazil on Monday issued an alert warning citizens against travelling to Bahia.

About 1 000 soldiers surrounded the building that police occupied last week to protest what they say is low pay and poor benefits.

Officials said the soldiers are at the building seeking to arrest 11 of the police officers holed up there. They are wanted for allegedly organising roving gangs to loot stores and of robbing police cars last week, in what Governor Jaques Wagner said was an effort to spread panic among the population. One officer was arrested on Sunday.

Wagner said he thinks striking police are connected to some of the recent killings - though no murder accusations have been levied against any police as of Monday, a spokesperson for the Bahia state public security secretariat said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to discuss the situation.

90 murders

Wagner has given no details on the accusation linking police to the violence.

Since the strike began last Tuesday, there have been about 90 murders in Salvador, home to 2.7 million people. That's double the normal homicide rate.

But calm has mostly been restored since 2 000 soldiers and 600 elite federal police were sent into the city on Saturday, with murders dropping below normal levels. Armoured personnel carriers patrol the streets as rifle-toting soldiers dressed in camouflage point their weapons outward.

The police on strike initially were asking for advances on six different points. But the governor's office and union officials speaking to the local press say police now have two demands: Amnesty from firings or other punishment for the striking police and the payment of bonuses that would add about $350 a month to officers' paychecks.

The state government's offer is a raise of 6.5% and no amnesty for the striking officers, which union officials have rejected.

Officials fear the situation could put a dent in the number of tourists who will attend Salvador's Carnival celebrations later this month. The city's celebrations are second only to Rio de Janeiro's in size, are known for being even more rambunctious and are a major source of income for the city.

This past weekend many concerts and other events marking the run-up to Carnival were cancelled because of fear of the violence.