June 5, 2006

Chilean high school students resume violent strikes

By Pav Jordan

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Protesters clashed with Chilean
police on Monday as nearly one million high school students and
sympathizers joined an expanding strike pushing for increased
education funding.

The strike, the largest 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
$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, a student

Some 20 police and journalists were injured in the
protests, some of them hit by rocks hurled by protesters, and
262 demonstrators were arrested in the capital. Police said
many of those arrested 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 grew more intense as the day progressed, with
some demonstrators damaging public property, smashing downtown
store windows and attacking police with rocks and other

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.

(Additional reporting by Manuel Farias and Rodrigo