Lima under siege as anti-Fujimori protests explode

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The Independent US

As Alberto K Fujimori was sworn in yesterday for his controversial third term as Peruvian President, the streets of Lima appeared more prepared for a state of siege than for inauguration festivities. At least three people were injured as riot police with breathing masks chased demonstrators down the streets amid clouds of tear gas.

As Alberto K Fujimori was sworn in yesterday for his controversial third term as Peruvian President, the streets of Lima appeared more prepared for a state of siege than for inauguration festivities. At least three people were injured as riot police with breathing masks chased demonstrators down the streets amid clouds of tear gas.

Mr Fujimori, wearing a dark suit decorated with the red-and-white presidential sash, reviewed a military honour guard only blocks away before heading to a cathedral mass ahead of his oath-taking at Congress.

The Presidential Palace was surrounded by an electrified fence, which also had been greased, just in case Mr. Fujimori's opponents breached the lines formed by the 35,000 riot police and attempted to torch the place again.

In an intentional diplomatic snub, few international leaders wanted to give legitimacy to the disputed third presidency and only two neighbouring heads of state attended this ceremony. President Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, who recently declared a state of emergency in his landlocked country which relies on Peru as a seaboard, and President Gustavo Noboa, who took over as leader of Ecuador after the army joined indigenous groups to oust the president, were on hand, but a dozen others stayed away.

Alejandro Toledo, the shoeshine boy turned economics professor who had spearheaded leftist opposition to Mr Fujimori but dropped out of the election eight weeks ago, had called for a quarter million Peruvians to mass in the streets. Tens of thousands gathered in central Lima the night before and chanted anti-Fujimori slogans, while Mr Toledo called for fresh elections. "Fujimori's days are numbered," he said to rapturous applause. An outsize coffin, labelled "Here lies Peru's Democracy" was carried by the crowd.

Many protestors had travelled from remote regions for a "March of the Four Cuyos", named after the four cardinal points of the Inca Empire. One woman, chewing coca leaves against hunger and fatigue, had travelled by foot eight days from the Andean highlands.

Since Wednesday, thousands of women had been ritually washing the sullied Peruvian flag, or stopping traffic with solemn processions while dressed in mourning. Others had mock hypodermic needles to "innoculate" the citizenry against another Fujimori term gained through dirty tactics.

The opposition backed down on an earlier threat to block Mr Fujimori's inaugural ceremonies at the palace. Mr Toledo invited international observers to oversee the event and ensure government security forces did not use repressive tactics.

The Peruvian air force refused to authorise helicopter flyovers by an independent television news station or foreign observers, effectively preventing aerial photographs that might show the extent of these protests. But government highway blockades and threats against inter-state transport companies curtailed the numbers of demonstrators.

Many vehicles were detained outside the capital. Water cannon and stacks of tear gas canisters had been in position for days, and street vendors were doing brisk business in homemade gas masks, selling devices patched together from plastic bottles, mattress stuffing and vinegar.

The increasing highhandedness of Mr Fujimori, who shrugs off accusations of fraud and intimidation in his quest for a third term, seems to typify another kind of Latin American strongmen. These new-age caudillos do not seize power through coups, as did Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Most are populists who promise stability, and their main appeal is to the region's numerous poor, who suffer as shaky democracies undergo economic setbacks. Their ascendency reflects the unsuitability of existing parties, which often grow into corrupt institutions. Venezuela's charismatic President Hugo Chavez fits into this category , and many say the president-elect of Mexico, Vicente Fox may prove to be a strongman as well.

A protester said yesterday in Lima: "If he'd gone in 1995, he'd have been remembered as Peru's best president in history. Now, we're tired of him."

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