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Chile cracks down on violent student protest

Police use water cannons on crowd and arrest 75 protesters who returned to streets of Santiago to demand free education.

Last updated: 09 Aug 2012 08:42
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Police have used water cannons to break up a protest in Chile's capital, Santiago, by thousands of students demanding free education, and hooded vandals set ablaze three city buses amid violence that left dozens arrested and injured.

Chile's government said student leaders cannot be exempt from responsibility for the burning of the Transantiago mass transit system buses in Wednesday's protest, during which 75 people were arrested and 49 policemen were injured.

"The leaders are opening the doors to vandalism and delinquency," presidential spokesman Andres Chadwick said.

"How much more should we put up with these illegal marches that call on school takeovers and that threaten a violent August? What does that have to with education?"

"I deeply regret what is happening today in the streets of Santiago, but the government is responsible for this because of its indolence and silence to all the proposals of the student movement."

- Gabriel Boric, president of University of Chile student federation

Gabriel Boric, the president of the University of Chile student federation, told local TV: "I deeply regret what is happening today in the streets of Santiago, but the government is responsible for this because of its indolence and silence to all the proposals of the student movement."

The crisis over education reform in Chile remains unresolved despite more than a year of demonstrations by students, teachers and families.

The marches have mostly been peaceful but often end with clashes between police in riot gear and groups of vandals armed with sticks that loot shops and hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Santiago's municipal government had banned the students from flooding the streets of the capital, fearing the protest would turn violent.

Damages to public transport

The transportation ministry said damages to the public buses would cost Chile's capital about 400 million pesos ($836,000).

"It's unacceptable," said transportation minister Pedro Pablo Errazuriz.

"There are millions of people who use the Transantiago and these heartless ones are taking the wrong attitude by burning the buses and putting at risk passengers and the driver."

Raw footage shot with a cellphone camera of an attack on one bus showed passengers crawling on the floor while hooded vandals hurled rocks at the windows.

The government has said the previous most recent protest in late June turned out to be the most violent, with 472 demonstrators arrested and 36 police officers injured.

At least three Chilean public transport buses were set on fire by hooded vandals [AFP]

Mass demonstrations initially raised hope across Chile for education reform, but more than a year after the first protests, few students have seen any real benefits.

Politicians and students have toughened their stance, but the system still fails families with poor quality public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and banks that make education loans at high interest that most Chileans can't afford.

President Sebastian Pinera, whose approval ratings have plunged with the protests that have focused Chileans' attention on academic and economic inequality, has refused to radically change the education system.

Instead, he has proposed to spend about $1bn on thousands of new scholarships and lower student loan interest from an average of six per cent to two per cent.

Student leaders want to change the tax system so the rich pay more. They also want the state back in control of the mostly privatised public universities to ensure quality. They say change will come only when the private sector is regulated and education is no longer a for-profit business.

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