Massive student rally in Chile

2011-10-19 20:27

Santiago - Thousands of students descended on down town Santiago on Wednesday for a massive protest march meant to be the culmination of two days of rolling street protests for education reform.

Students early on Wednesday began milling around the Plaza Italia, usually a venue for major sporting events, and in front of the University of Santiago - the two gathering spots for this most recent of numerous youth-led protests to be held in the Chilean capital since May.

The re-launch of the protests after several weeks' hiatus comes after talks between the government and student leaders broke down.

The Chilean Students Confederation called for the two days of protests with the backing of some 70 other organisations, including the country's largest labour confederation and a teachers organisation.

But the demonstrations have been marred by violence, as hooded protesters on both days erected barricades and set tyres ablaze across the city, prompting police to respond with tear gas and water cannons.

The government denounced the violence and the destruction of private and public property and said it would impose strict new security measures in response to the burning of a bus by protesters on Tuesday.

Police said some 260 people had been detained by early on Wednesday, and that eight police officers had been hurt in two days of skirmishes.

"The government strongly condemns these acts," said Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla.

The students, Ubilla said, should "find another way to express their views that doesn't involve violence and destruction, which does nothing to advance the dialogue," Ubilla said.

Disaffected rowdies

But the head of the student group insisted that the protests were peaceful for the most part, and blamed the unrest on a relatively small band of disaffected rowdies.

"Violence doesn't help anyone, it hurts us," said Camilo Ballesteros, who criticised the government "for its inability to identify the small group" of troublemakers that he said was responsible for the unrest.

The protests are Chile's biggest since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship more than two decades ago.

The latest student upheaval also coincides with youth-led Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and other major cities across the globe.

The students said they have rejected further negotiations with the government because it had not moved toward their demands for free public education from grade school through university.

At the moment, only about 40% of students qualify for free education based on parents' income.

Classes have been on hold for months in many schools and universities during the demonstrations, which routinely draw tens of thousands of students into the streets.

The government has said the students are radicals with whom it has been futile to negotiate.