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Drivers clog roads in Chile, join protests over economy

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Santiago (AFP)

Cars and trucks moving at a snail's pace clogged Chilean highways Friday as drivers joined week-long protests over economic inequality that have left 19 people dead.

The morning rush hour in Santiago was anything but that, as motorists with red, white and blue Chilean flags formed long caravans on roads leading out of the capital city.

Their stated gripe was a specific one -- the high cost of highway tolls -- but it added to a loud and broader chorus of grass-roots exasperation in a country long seen as a model for stability and social calm in Latin America.

The unrest was triggered by something people now acknowledge is hardly their main complaint -- a small rise in metro fares, which has now been suspended.

Indeed, for a week now Chileans have been releasing pent-up anger over a socio-economic structure that many feel has left them by the wayside, with low wages and pensions, costly health care and education, and a big gap between rich and poor.

Luis Leiton, a taxi driver taking part in Friday's go-slow, said the toll system was expensive and abusive.

"If this is not resolved with concrete measures, this nation that has risen up is going to keep protesting," Leiton told AFP.

In the initial spasm of violence metro stations were destroyed, supermarkets torched and looted, traffic lights and bus shelters smashed and countless street barricades erected and set alight.

Some 20,000 police and soldiers have been deployed in Santiago, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators.

Security forces have been blamed for five of the 19 protest-related deaths. Social media have lit up with accusations of torture and abuse.

The United Nations said Thursday it was sending a team to investigate the allegations.

Authorities reported a reduction in violence on Wednesday compared with Tuesday, saying there had been no deaths, a 25 percent drop in arrests and fewer serious incidents.

- 'We're fed up'-

The violence is the worst in Chile since it returned to democracy after the 1973-1990 right-wing dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Conservative President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire, apologized this week for failing to anticipate the outbreak of social unrest.

He announced a raft of measures designed to placate people, such as rises in minimum pensions and wages. He also announced a plan to end a state of emergency and to lift a nighttime curfew.

The protests show no sign of abating, although they are more peaceful now.

A general strike has been called and thousands of workers honored it Thursday on its second day, although in Santiago it looked like business as usual for the most part.

The national human rights institute -- INDH -- says 584 people have been injured, 245 by firearms, and 2,410 detained.

Soldiers are guarding Santiago's metro stations as three of the seven lines -- which usually carry three million people per-day -- operate, backed up by 6,000 buses.

The protests lack a clear focus or recognizable leadership.

"This is the whole country's complaint. We're fed up," one demonstrator yelled Thursday over the din of pots and pans being banged in front of soldiers.

The government said Thursday that next month's APEC trade summit would go ahead despite the protests.

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