Chilean high school students resume violent strikes

SANTIAGO, Chile - Protesters clashed with Chilean police as nearly one million high school students and sympathisers joined an expanding strike pushing for increased education funding.

The strike, the largest such action by Chilean students in decades, is the first domestic crisis of President Michelle Bachelet's nearly three-month-old government.

Public high school pupils are demanding free bus fare, free college entrance exams, more teachers, and improved secondary school buildings. They rejected Bachelet's offer last week of US$135 ($216) million in additional annual funding for school programmes, saying it failed to meet their key demands.

"Our demands from the start have been for sweeping changes to the education system," said Maria Jesus Sanhueza, a student leader.

While there were no reported injuries, some 160 demonstrators were arrested and police said many were older than high school age.

Bachelet said reforms would be implemented with or without a strike, but she would not bend further to student demands.

"I am sorry we are experiencing this strike today, because in my view it is not necessary," she said.

The protests increased in intensity as the day progressed, with some demonstrators damaging public property, smashing downtown store windows and attacking police with rocks and other projectiles.

Police in vehicles responded with jets of water and tear gas, sending protesters and bystanders coughing and scampering.

"Our movement is peaceful but we understand that at times the malcontent of our comrades can translate into violence," Sanhueza said.

The marches were still more subdued than last week's, in which students, police and journalists were injured.

In the coastal city of Valparaiso, some 14,000 students marched peacefully through the streets, while in Santiago groups of police marched in formation behind riot shields to disperse pockets of demonstrators.

More than 600,000 students were officially involved in the strike, although they were joined by several hundred thousand sympathizers - including university students - after talks with the government broke down at the end of last week.

Public high schools across Chile were closed last week because of the strike, but the violence shocked the public. The chief of police fired the head of his special forces, saying excessive force was used to quell protests.

The protests started with the takeover of a few schools in the capital Santiago, but the movement gained momentum quickly as it won the sympathies of much of the public.


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