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Troops, police clash with protesters in Peru

Thursday, May 29, 2003

LIMA, Peru -- Army troops and police clashed with demonstrators blocking highways Wednesday after President Alejandro Toledo declared a national state of emergency to control spreading protests.

The country's 1,500-mile Pan American Highway remained cut in dozens of places by rocks and smoldering tires placed by angry farmers.

Soldiers and police fired tear gas as protesters blocked the highway outside Barranca, 100 miles northwest of Lima. But the crowd resisted and hurled rocks at the security forces.

Thousands of travelers, including children and the ill, have been stranded since Monday as farmers sought to stop farm produce from getting to Lima and other cities.

In Chiclayo, 410 miles northwest of Lima, police fired tear gas and arrested striking teachers. In Pativilca, 140 miles northwest of Lima, demonstrators stoned cars and ransacked buses.

Toledo went on national television late Tuesday night to announce: "Tolerance has its limit.

"We have the responsibility to govern for 26 million Peruvians. We have the responsibility to protect citizens and the public order," Toledo said.

The 30-day state of emergency gives police and the military the authority to use force to clear the highways, restore order, detain strikers and enter homes without warrants. It also limits freedom of movement and prohibits public assembly.

Tens of thousands of farmers had joined striking teachers, government health workers and judiciary employees in spreading protests that turned increasingly violent. In the central Andes near the city of Jauja, some 2,000 farmers on Tuesday stoned a contingent of 30 policemen trying to clear a highway, injuring seven of them.

The farmers are demanding lower taxes on their crops and protection from imports. The other groups are seeking wage increases.

In declaring a state of emergency, Toledo risked tarnishing his image as a democratic leader. He rose to political prominence in the struggle to force former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori from power in 2000.

Toledo, who took office in July 2001, is viewed as a weak, indecisive leader by most Peruvians, according to public opinion surveys. In recent months his popularity has tumbled, with some polls showing his support as low as 14 percent.

Political opponents and analysts say the image of weakness is encouraging protests by groups that believe they can force him to accept demands for higher pay and other benefits that the government cannot afford.

"He shows very weak leadership, which has caused problems to get out of control, to the point that he now wants to compensate for his weakness with the extreme measure of turning control of internal order over to the military," said Jorge del Castillo, a leader of the populist Aprista Party, Peru's strongest opposition force.

But the measure drew applause from many quarters.

"I think it was absolutely necessary," said Samuel Gleiser, a prominent business leader. "There have been excesses and I think it was necessary to control them. It's the best showing by Toledo so far. He took the bull by the horns."

The government also declared a national teachers' strike to be illegal and gave teachers six days to return to their classrooms or face dismissal. Union leaders said the strike would continue.

Teachers, who went on strike May 12, earn about $190 a month. The government has offered to raise their salaries by about $30 a month, but the teachers are demanding double that.

The state of emergency placed Lima and 11 other of Peru's 24 regions under military control.


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