Six burn to death in Peru street battles

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The Independent US

As Peru's Alberto Fujimori took his oath to "uphold democracy" at the start of a third presidential term on Friday, violence worsened on the streets of Lima.

As Peru's Alberto Fujimori took his oath to "uphold democracy" at the start of a third presidential term on Friday, violence worsened on the streets of Lima.

Battles between riot police and protesters left six dead and more than 100 injured - at least four of them suffering gunshot wounds. More than 150 demonstrators were taken away in handcuffs before the night was over, and Peru awakened yesterday with the heart of its capital blackened, a country divided.

Historic buildings were set ablaze by masked youths, while some police stood aside. Firemen uncovered the charred bodies of six security guards in the smouldering National Bank. Across the street, the National Electoral Tribune was torched by mobs objecting to President Fujimori's alleged rigging of polls.

The Ministry of Education and the Palace of Justice were also set ablaze. People trapped inside the smoke-filled courthouse escaped from windows by using curtains as ropes, but were then engulfed in clouds of tear gas.

Some 35,000 troops patrolled the streets, firing pistols in the air to disperse protesters who were advancing on the Presidential Palace. Around 1,500 hard-liners set tyres alight and tossed rocks and bottles during what had been billed as a peaceful protest by Peruvians from all four corners of the former Inca empire. Three Mig-29 fighters flew overhead as plumes of smoke rose over the city.

Lima's fire chief, Rafael Calvo, says he tried to persuade Alejandro Toledo - the populist challenger who had earlier boycotted the election and called for three days of street protests - to tell his followers to stop the destruction. For more than two hours, firefighters could not tackle theflames "because the vandals impeded us", said Mr Calvo.

Mr Toledo, struck by a tear-gas canister just streets from the inaugural ceremony inside the Congress building, called a news conference after most of the violence had subsided. He blamed pro-Fujimori infiltrators under the direction of the president's shadowy spymaster, Vladimiro Montesinos, for inciting the unrest in an attempt to discredit the protest. It was these outsiders, he claimed, who had used firebombs, and not his own supporters. "I could never justify an act of violence," he said, pleading for rioters to stop "in the name of peace".

"Fujimori has been inaugurated behind the tanks and rifles because he does not have the support of the people," added Mr Toledo, a former World Bank economist, and ex-shoeshine boy.

One of 13 children born to highland Indians, Mr Toledo, 54, vowed that "the peaceful resistance will continue". Calling for fresh elections, he said: "We have police firing against us, but we won't take even one step backward. We Peruvians are making a peaceful march and they want to kill us."

Nobel Prize winner Rigoberto Menchu, the Mayan activist from Guatemala, and Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, had supported Mr Toledo in his protest against spring elections that were dismissed by international monitors as "far from free and fair".

Mr Fujimori pledged democratic reforms and appointed an opposition leader, Federico Salas, as his new prime minister. After 10 years in power, the president's popularity ratinghas sunk to 40 per cent. Unrest looks set to continue.

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