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Dozens Injured as Police Break Up Paraguay Protest

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Dozens Injured as Police Break Up Paraguay Protest

September 17, 2002 07:07 PM ET

By Jose Maria Amarilla

ASUNCION, Paraguay (Reuters) - Paraguayan police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse anti-government protesters on Tuesday, injuring 67 people and arresting dozens more, officials said.

Some 9,000 demonstrators had gathered near Congress on Monday night to demand the resignation of unpopular President Luis Gonzalez Macchi, besieged by an economic slump and soaring unemployment in this poor, landlocked South American nation of 5 million people.

About 5,000 followers of Gonzalez Macchi's rival, alleged coup plotter Lino Oviedo, who lives in exile in Brazil, had decided to remain in front of Congress until the president resigned, but riot squads and mounted police moved in.

By late Tuesday, the capital's streets were quiet as the latest troubles subsided in this California-sized country, beset by political instability in the 1990s after the end of a military dictatorship.

But it could be only a brief respite. Farmers, a powerful sector in Paraguay, plan a national protest on Monday against the economic policies of the government.

Supporters of Oviedo, popular in polls despite allegations he had plotted coups, also clashed with security forces two months ago, leaving two protesters dead and dozens injured and prompting a temporary suspension of civil liberties for the first time in two years.

"We exhausted all attempts at peaceful negotiation," said state prosecutor Alejandro Nissen, who ordered police to break up the latest protest. Four former lawmakers, all Oviedo sympathizers, were ordered arrested, he added.

Sanchez Villagra, one of the politicians arrested, charged that there was "police brutality here."

"It was not necessary to use this kind of force against women and children," Villagra said.

Gonzalez Macchi decided to work at his official residence instead of the presidential palace, which is near Congress.

BACKTRACKS ON PRIVATIZATIONS

Paraguay is suffering from economic crises in neighboring giants Argentina and Brazil. Fear of contagion -- similar to that in Uruguay last month -- led to a run on the frail banking system earlier this year.

Social unrest this year has already forced Gonzalez Macchi to backtrack on privatization plans. The president, who was appointed in 1999 after his predecessor resigned, also has been linked to a series of corruption scandals.

Many of Paraguay's people live in poverty, often as landless subsistence farmers. Economists estimate nearly half of the country's economy, stagnant or shrinking since 1995, depends on smuggling of goods like cigarettes, VCRs and fake brand-name clothes.

Paraguay has not achieved democratic stability since a 1989 coup ousted dictator Alfredo Stroessner, ending 35 years as one of South America's most notorious police states.

Oviedo, in exile in Brazil, began a presidential campaign in 1998 but stepped down when he was charged with having plotted a 1996 coup attempt.

Investigators suspect him of masterminding the assassination of Vice President Luis Argana, an avowed rival, in 1999 and a military rebellion in 2000 that failed to unseat Gonzalez Macchi's government.

Paraguay's next presidential election is due in 2003.

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