Brazil's poor are cut down after a 150-mile protest march

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The Independent US

A 17-day protest march by 12,000 landless Brazilian peasants ended in violence as activists fought police and demanded faster government land resettlement to cut rural poverty.

A 17-day protest march by 12,000 landless Brazilian peasants ended in violence as activists fought police and demanded faster government land resettlement to cut rural poverty.

More than 50 people were injured when mounted riot police charged demonstrators at the end of a gruelling 150-mile march on Tuesday to pressure the left-wing Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to meet land reform promises. But leaders of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) met Mr Da Silva, known widely as Lula, and said they reached a deal to boost reform spending. Government officials denied any accord.

More than 30 MST activists and 20 paramilitary police suffered bruises and broken bones after protesters tried to cross a police line at Congress. The mounted officers made repeated baton charges in the worst protest violence in Brasilia in years. "They just came at us without provocation," said Gabriel Silveira, an MST activist, as he staggered on the grass before Congress, complaining of a blow to his shoulder by police.

Police Major Nevitton Pereira Junior said two officers could lose their sight after being speared in the face by bamboo poles. He showed welts where he said he had been beaten.

MST leaders have threatened to increase the pace of land occupations, and could drop traditional support for Lula if he fails to meet a promise to settle 430,000 families by 2006. He has come nowhere near fulfilling that election pledge after focusing on market-driven economic policies and big-farm producers in an attempt to achieve a steady growth rate.

MST leaders stated after meeting Lula that he agreed to free nearly half the land-reform spending frozen in 2005, about 700 million reais (£155m), and hire 1,300 land reform agents to speed settlement of families. The agrarian reform minister, Miguel Rossetto, said the meeting had been "positive" but the government had made no deal and it was hoping to present its proposals by the end of yesterday.

MST leaders showed no sign of easing up on farm invasions, which worry foreign investors and can cause political headaches for Lula as the opposition accuses him of being soft on "crime". Joao Pedro Stedile, an MST leader, told cheering activists near Congress as police looked on: "With the energy of this march we have to raise occupations even higher, with this energy we have to attack economic policy."

Since Lula's Workers Party moved from its leftist roots the MST has lost its most powerful political backer. The MST invades ranches to press the government to purchase and resettle unused land. The end goal is to cut deep land inequality where 1 per cent of Brazil's 180 million people control 45 per cent of its farmland. Leaders of Brazil's peasant movements said they still backed Lula but could end support for his 2006 re-election campaign unless he spends more on landless settlement.

"When we get to the election period we are going to discuss this," said Romario Rossetto, a national co-ordinator of the Via Campesino movement which represents small farmers.

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