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Chile anniversary rallies turn violent as churches burn, police pour tear gas

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Chileans gathered in Santiago’s central square to mark an anniversary of mass protests that left more than 30 dead and thousands injured, with peaceful rallies Sunday spending the night in riots and looting.

People gathered early in the day in downtown demonstrations and in cities across Chile that gained size and enthusiasm during the evening. Many signs and banners made in the colors of the rainbow calling for a vote next Sunday in a referendum on the repeal of the dictatorship-era Constitution, a key demand of the 2019 protests.

The demonstrations, though largely peaceful at first, were marred by escalating incidents of violence, supermarket looting and clashes with police across the capital later in the day. Fire vehicle sirens, burning street barricades and fireworks in downtown streets added a sense of chaos in some neighborhoods.

Interior Minister Victor Perez spoke late in the evening, praising the early, peaceful rallies as the late-night mutilation erupted. He called on Chileans to resolve their differences by voting in the upcoming October 25 constitutional referendum.

“Those who commit these acts of violence do not want the Chileans to solve our problems by democratic means,” Perez told reporters, vowing to punish those who crossed the line on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, an angry mob mocked and threatened a Communist Party leader. Later, masked individuals set fire to a police headquarters and a church. Vandals attacked another church in Santiago early in the evening, setting it on fire and suffocating side streets with smoke.

More than 15 subway stations were temporarily closed amid the riots. Police opened tear gas and water cannons in clashes with sometimes violent people, wearing hoods and masks.

The protests of recent years, which began on October 18, ignited until mid-December as Chileans rallied across the country to call for reforms in the pension, healthcare and education systems. The riots and looting resulted in billions of dollars in damage and losses to the countries’ businesses and infrastructure. The riots saw the army take to the streets for the first time since the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Police estimated that Sunday’s rally in Santiago drew about 25,000 people by 6pm, much smaller than the larger protests of 2019.

In recent days, small-scale demonstrations and isolated incidents of violence have resurfaced in Chile as the capitals of 6 million citizens emerge from months of imprisonment following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the demonstrators on Sunday wore masks, but many of them could be seen in close groups, raising concerns about a potential health risk.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Natalia Ramos in Santiago; Editing by Stephen Coates and Christopher Cushing

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