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Chile simmers after another night of unrest

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Santiago (AFP)

Looters sacked a hotel and several supermarkets in Chile in another night of unrest as tensions flared in the crisis-hit South American country.

The violence "is reaching levels not seen in Chile since the return of democracy" in 1990, Defense Minister Alberto Espina warned Congress in an appearance Wednesday.

The flare-ups in several towns and cities overnight came with the national police under fire for using excessive force against street protesters and abusing detainees.

Human Rights Watch, which on Tuesday accused the police of "serious human rights violations," said it had received hundreds of reports of abuses, including beatings and sexual assault.

Meanwhile, university student Gustavo Gatica became the first demonstrator to be left fully blind after being hit in the eyes by pellets fired by riot police on November 8 during a protest in Santiago.

Gatica's case has become a symbol among the more than 200 demonstrators who have suffered eye injuries -- often resulting in being blinded in one eye -- from rubber bullets and pellets fired by riot police.

Residents in some towns displayed their anger by banging on pots and pans.

In La Serena, a beach town 480 kilometers (300 miles) north of Santiago, assailants looted and set fire to a traditional downtown hotel, the Costa Real.

Vandals in the port city of San Antonio, in the region of Valparaiso, torched the offices of the local newspaper, El Lider.

Further south in Concepcion, a massive protest held amid a strike by the country's main labor union ended in violent clashes between hooded protesters and police.

In Santiago, a metro station in a university district in the center of the city was vandalized during the night, forcing its closure Wednesday.

The city's metro system is still recovering from attacks October 18 when a hike in metro fares set off the violent protests against the government of President Sebastian Pinera.

Wednesday morning, activists demanding an end to highway tolls blocked main roads into Santiago, causing traffic jams.

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