Chile launches fresh talks to calm deadly unrest

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Santiago (AFP)

Chilean ministers and opposition leaders launched a fresh bid Thursday to end deadly anti-government protests that forced the government to abandon hosting two major economic and climate summits.

The unrest started with protests against a rise in transport tickets and other austerity measures and descended into burning, looting and clashes between protesters and police.

Protesters are angry about low salaries and pensions, poor public healthcare and education and a yawning gap between rich and poor.

Pinera has reshuffled his government and announced a series of measures aimed at placating protesters.

But they have continued demanding that the right-wing billionaire president step down.

On Thursday, the government hosted political rivals for fresh talks at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

The leader of the Socialist Party, Alvaro Elizalde, said he would demand the government launch "an ambitious social agenda".

Elizalde and other opposition leaders expressed support for proposals to reform the country's 1980 constitution, which dates to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

"We have come back to La Moneda today to try to make the government listen to the need to take fundamental measures," said Carlos Maldonado, leader of the Radical Party.

Pinera has not ruled out constitutional reform.

The speaker of the Supreme Court Lamberto Cisterna has backed a proposal to set up a parliamentary group as a first step towards a new constitution.

Reforms passed under the dictatorship loosened state regulation of education, healthcare and pensions -- three key focuses of the current protests.

- 'Painful' summit call -

The impact of the unrest on Chile's international image worsened on Wednesday when the government said it was pulling out of hosting the APEC economic summit in November and the December COP climate gathering.

It said it had no choice but to abandon the summits for security reasons.

Pinera said the move was "painful" but was driven by "common sense".

US President Donald Trump had said he was planning to meet Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the APEC talks.

The White House said Thursday that Trump backed Pinera's decision to pull out of the summit, however.

"The United States stands with Chile, an important ally, as it works to peacefully restore national order," said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

Trump said an alternative location for the signing of a US-China trade deal with President Xi Jinping will be "announced soon."

APEC said it supported Chile's decision but gave no indication there would be a replacement summit this year, saying only that Malaysia would host the 2020 event.

Pinera said in an address on Thursday that Spain had offered to host the COP 25 climate summit in Madrid on the original scheduled dates of December 2-13.

- Alleged abuses -

Huge crowds took to the streets in the latest protests on Wednesday. Numerous shops and businesses remained closed.

Twenty people have been confirmed killed in the unrest. Chilean prosecutors said Wednesday they were investigating 23 deaths overall thought to be linked to the crisis.

Sixteen of the dead were killed "during the alleged commission of so-called 'common' crimes," five "by actions of agents of the state" and two "under state custody," prosecutors said on Twitter.

A mission led by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet -- Chile's former president -- is expected to open a probe later this week into allegations of police brutality.