June 5, 2006

Chilean high school students resume strikes

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Protesters clashed sporadically
with Chilean police on Monday as nearly 1 million high school
students and sympathizers 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 3-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
$135 million in additional annual funding for school programs,
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, one of
several spokesmen and women for the students.

"For the time being the strike will be maintained,"
Sanhueza said.

Monday's protests were more subdued than last week's, in
which students, police and journalists were injured.

Instead of the massive street marches of a week ago, local
television showed groups of police marching in formation behind
riot shields, armed with water cannons and tear gas as they
moved to disperse pockets of demonstrators.

In other images, students were shown setting fire to tires
to block main streets.

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.

Student leaders have called for a peaceful strike, although
some 40 demonstrators were arrested on Monday. Police said many
of those were older than high school age.

After talks broke down, Bachelet said reforms would be
implemented with or without a strike, but she could 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 on Monday.

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

(Additional reporting by Manuel Farias and Rodrigo