LIMA, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters in Peru, many from the country’s far south, descended on Lima, the capital, on Thursday, angered by the death toll since unrest began last month and calling for sweeping reforms.
Police estimated that the march was about 3,500 people, but some say it attracted twice that number.
Dozens of police in riot gear faced stone-throwing protesters in some streets, and a prominent building in the city center caught fire on Thursday.
The building, located on San Martin Plaza, was empty when the massive fire broke out for unknown reasons, a fire chief told local radio.
Canadian worker Hudbay said in his statement that the protesters entered the site of the Peruvian territory, vandalized and burned machinery and vehicles.
“This was not a protest; this was a violation of the law,” Prime Minister Alberto Otarola said Thursday evening together with President Dina Boluarte and other government ministers.
Interior Minister Vicente Romero denied media reports that the Lima fire was caused by a police officer’s tear gas bomb.
In the past month, violent and sometimes deadly protests have led to the worst violence Peru has seen in more than two decades, with many in rural areas angry at Lima’s imposition of inequality and rising prices, testing the copper-rich Andes. democratic institutions.
Opponents are calling for Boluarte’s resignation, snap elections and a new law to replace the pro-market system since the days of strongman Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s.
“We want the dictator Dina Boluarte to step down and call for new elections,” said opposition activist Jose De la Rosa, predicting more street protests.
The protests were sparked by the December 7 mass impeachment of former leftist President Pedro Castillo after he tried to illegally shut down Congress and consolidate power.
On buses and on foot, thousands traveled to Lima on Thursday, carrying flags and banners blasting the government and police over deadly clashes in the southern cities of Ayacucho and Juliaca.
The riots spread far from the capital.
In southern Arequipa, police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who tried to seize the airport, local TV reported, leading officials to announce a suspension of operations at Arequipa and Cusco airports.
Boluarte said Thursday evening that the airports, as well as one located south of Juliaca, were attacked “in concert.”
“The severity of the law will fall on the people who destroyed it,” said Boluarte.
The death toll stands at 45, according to the public ombudsman, the latest victim on Thursday is from the south of Puno, a woman who was injured since the previous day. Another 9 people died as a result of accidents caused by blocking protests.
Across the country, road closures were seen in 18 of the country’s 25 provinces, according to transport officials, indicating that the protests have reached their peak.
Police had stepped up patrolling the roads leading into Lima and political leaders appealed for calm.
Last week, Boluarte’s embattled government extended the state of emergency in Lima and the southern provinces of Puno and Cusco, curtailing human rights.
Boluarte said the situation in the country is “in control”. He called for a discussion.
The president has asked for an “apology” for the deaths of the protesters, despite signs declaring him a “murderer” and calling the killings of security forces “massacres.” He has stopped calls to quit.
Human rights groups have accused the police and military of using deadly weapons in the protests. Police said the protesters used weapons and homemade bombs.
“We will not forget the pain that the police caused in the town of Juliaca,” said a protester who was going to Lima, who did not give his name. He also mentioned the city where the worst protests happened this month. “We women, men, children must fight.”
Some of the protestors cited reasons for moving the capital to the lake.
“We want to establish our group here in Lima, which is the heart of Peru, to see if they will be moved,” said activist Domingo Cueva, who left Cusco.
“We have seen an increase in repression everywhere,” he added.
Marco Aquino reports; Additional reporting by Anthony Marina and Alfredo Galarza; By Adam Jourdan; Edited by Leslie Adler and Bradley Perrett
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