October 22, 2019 / 1:45 PM / 20 days ago

Protests snarl public transportation in Chile, death toll hits 15

SANTIAGO, Oct 22 (Reuters) - A hobbled metro system and damage to downtown streets snarled public transportation in the Chilean capital Santiago on Tuesday, following days of protests throughout the country that have left 15 dead and led to the arrest of 2,600, officials said.

Thousands of people poured into Santiago’s central squares on Monday to protest high living costs and inequality.

As pressure mounted, Chile’s center-right President Sebastian Pinera said he would meet with opposition leaders on Tuesday to forge a “new social contract.”

Ten cities throughout Chile have been placed in a state of emergency and under evening lockdown since riots broke out last Friday.

The general in charge of security in Santiago, Javier Iturriaga early on Monday told Chileans that the city “had slept tranquilly last night.” Iturriaga reported only minor, isolated incidents following a military lockdown that began at 8 p.m.

The widespread protests have nonetheless continued to sow destruction across the city. Santiago’s central Plaza Italia, the focal point of much of the unrest, was littered with broken glass and stone, graffiti and still-smoldering fires. Many downtown streets reeked of tear gas early on Monday.

‘NOTHING CHANGES’

Roxana Yanez, 56, a factory worker, said she had had a difficult commute.

“On the one hand, we support these protests. We don’t earn much, just enough to to pay our bus fare,” she said. “What we don’t support is disorder, riots, looting. That doesn’t help.”

The recent protests in Chile were sparked by an increase in public transport fares in early October. But they reflect simmering anger over intense economic inequality in Chile, as well as costly health, education and pension systems seen by many as inadequate.

“This won’t stop until people see real change,” said Brandon Rodriguez, 25, a security guard. “Governments of the left and right have come and gone...but nothing changes for ordinary people.”

Late into the day on Monday, demonstrators spread along main avenues, plazas and bridges around the city, and remained on the streets until past the 8 p.m. curfew before soldiers dispersed them using water cannons, tear gas and verbal persuasion.

General Iturriaga said he was aware of videos circulating on social media suggesting brutality by police or the military in dealing with protesters and vandals.

“We are investigating every one of these situations. We’re not going to hide anything,” Iturriaga told reporters.

Interior sub-secretary Rodrigo Ubilla declined to identify the 15 people killed thus far in the riots.

The unrest in Chile has yet to dock copper output from the world’s top producer of the red metal, mining officials said.

Workers at BHP’s Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest, nonetheless initiated a 5-hour strike Tuesday morning, union officials told Reuters.

At Santiago’s international airport, many passengers were stranded after hundreds of flights were canceled by major airlines over several days and airlines laid out camp beds on the airport forecourt to accommodate them.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos Editing by Gerry Doyle and Bernadette Baum

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