Protests in Chile spread into wealthy Santiago neigborhoods

by Paulina ABRAMOVICH
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Chilean riot police faced off against anti-government demonstrators protesting in one of Santiago's wealthiest neighborhoods

Demonstrations in Chile against the government of President Sebastian Pinera spread into Santiago's wealthiest neighborhoods Wednesday, tainting previously untouched enclaves with violence amid the country's deadly protests.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched towards the Costanera Center, South America's largest shopping mall and a complex that includes the region's tallest building -- a symbol of the economic expansion that has made Chile one the region's most stable countries.

A phalanx of riot police stopped the demonstrators, firing water cannons and launching tear gas to disperse the crowds that gathered at the mall.

The demonstrations then spilled into the wealthy Providencia neighborhood, the hub of Chile's financial sector, where protesters lit fires, battled with police, looted a pharmacy and at least two banks, and damaged government buildings.

"We are living a level of violence and destruction never seen before," said Providencia mayor Evelyn Matthei.

Social media messages also called for a rally at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, located in the upmarket Vitacura district.

"The time has come to get to the east," said one message, indicating the upscale areas of the capital.

"People are rather sad and scared about how the country can return to normalcy," said Andrea Ortega, a 43-year-old lawyer who left her office early to look after her children, fearing rioting in an area hitherto unscathed by the violence.

Separately in Renca, a working-class neighborhood in northern Santiago, a small crowd attacked a police station leaving five officers injured. And truckers and car drivers blocked highways protesting the increase in road tolls.

- 'Nothing to hide' -

Demonstrations in Chile, which have already left 20 people dead, have been growing smaller but more violent in recent days.

At the same time, complaints about excessive force by police and soldiers have also been on the rise and include charges that police killed, tortured and sexually assaulted civilians during the weeks of protests.

Prosecutors say five of the 20 deaths recorded in the protests against high living costs were suspected to have been at the hands of security forces.

"We have been totally transparent about the figures because we have nothing to hide," Pinera said Wednesday.

A UN human rights mission is investigating the police brutality allegations.

The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also asked Pinera's authorization to send a mission to Chile at the request of human rights groups.

Chile's independent National Human Rights Institute says it has brought legal action over 181 cases including alleged murders, sexual violence and torture by the military police.

Pinera said state agents who committed abuses would be punished just as severely as those who carried out vandalism or violence in the protests.

He has reshuffled his government and announced a series of measures aimed at placating the protesters.

In the latest of these, on Wednesday he signed a law guaranteeing a minimum monthly wage of some $467.

But protesters have continued demanding that the right-wing billionaire president step down.

The ongoing crisis forced the government to cancel separate international economic and climate summits as well as a major international football match, the South America Copa Libertadores final.

Pinera said in a BBC interview broadcast Tuesday that he would not resign over the protests.

Chilean riot police faced off against anti-government demonstrators protesting in one of Santiago's wealthiest neighborhoods

Many of the young Chilean demonstrators are angry at the country's yawning income disparity

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera said he will not resign despite the mass protests

Riot police deployed armored water cannons to disperse the Santiago demonstrators