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New clashes as embattled Chile president reshuffles cabinet

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Santiago (AFP)

Chilean protesters clashed with security forces on Monday, several hours after embattled President Sebastian Pinera announced a cabinet reshuffle in his latest bid to end 10 days of street demonstrations.

At least 20 people have died in a wave of protests against social and economic inequality ahead of the latest violence in Santiago and, according to local media, the cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion.

"Chile has changed and the government too has to change to confront these new challenges in these new times," said Pinera, who replaced a third of his cabinet, including highly unpopular Interior Minister Andres Chadwick.

Protesters have been demanding Pinera's resignation as anger over low wages and pensions, expensive health and education, and a growing gap between rich and poor fueled the country's worst civil unrest in decades.

The announcement came amid fresh protests outside the presidential palace in central Santiago, where several dozen demonstrators were chanting: "Pinera, listen up, go to hell."

The palace was surrounded by security forces while the sound of tear gas being fired and anti-police or anti-military chants filled the air. As tensions mounted, looters struck a pharmacy.

A week-long state of emergency that had seen 20,000 police and soldiers deployed on the streets ended at midnight going into Monday.

On Saturday, Pinera canceled nighttime curfews that had begun a day after violent protests broke out.

- 'Get up earlier' -

Finance Minister Felipe Larrain, who was among the axed cabinet members, came under fire last month for recommending that "romantics" buy flowers, after announcing that inflation hadn't risen and they were even cheaper.

Also on the way out was Economy Minister Andres Fontaine, who fell afoul of public opinion when he advised disgruntled workers to "get up earlier" to avoid an increase in peak hour metro prices.

The three percent rise was the spark that triggered the worst political violence Chile has seen since it returned to democracy after the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship from 1973-1990.

Former Santiago governor Karla Rubilar, who was praised for her sympathetic reaction to protesters, has been made minister for the general secretariat of the government.

Pinera announced plans for the cabinet overhaul on Saturday, his third reshuffle in 15 months.

Last week he offered a raft of measures aimed at calming the public ire, including a hike in the minimum wage and pensions, some reductions in health care costs, and a streamlining of parliament.

Speaking at the presidential palace on Monday, Pinera said that "these measures won't solve all our problems but they are an important first step."

"They reflect the firm will of our government and the strong commitment of each of us in favor of a socially more just and equitable Chile," added Pinera, a wealthy businessman who was elected to a second term in March 2018, having previously served as president between 2010 and 2014.

Despite his attempts to appease the masses, Pinera's approval rating has dropped to 14 percent.

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