Chile police arrest 600 after protests as referendum looms

Santiago (AFP) –


Police arrested nearly 600 people after demonstrations to mark the anniversary of Chile's social protests turned violent as rioters torched two Catholic churches, the government said Monday.

Police stations were attacked as the authorities recorded 107 serious incidents nationwide while violence continued overnight, interior ministry undersecretary Juan Francisco Galli told reporters.

The demonstration came just a week before Chileans vote in a referendum on whether to replace the dictatorship-era constitution -- one of the key demands when the protest movement began in October 2019.

Galli said streets were barricaded amid "looting and attempted looting" of stores.

The violence erupted after around 30,000 protesters flocked to Santiago's central Plaza Italia for a peaceful demonstration, the government said.

But as the afternoon wore on, clashes broke out on the periphery of the square, more than 300 meters from the main, peaceful, demonstration.

The official said there was a "very clear distinction in how the day evolved" after it began with a peaceful demonstration but ended with serious acts of violence.

The most serious incidents occurred when hooded men attacked two churches and set them alight.

One church close to Plaza Italia was burned to the ground as hooded protesters cheered, while a second place of worship was looted and also suffered fire damage.

The small Church of the Assumption, which was destroyed in Sunday's violence, is known as the "artists' parish," according to local press. The building dated back to 1876.

- Nationwide clashes -

Clashes also occurred in other neighborhoods of Santiago and in cities around the country, resulting in 580 arrests, 287 in the capital alone, Galli said.

"In these events, there is no demonstration, there is no demand that is acceptable," he said.

Firefighters managed to get that blaze under control.

There were clashes between groups of football hooligans in one Santiago neighborhood, while protesters in Plaza Italia doused a statue with red paint.

Interior and Security Minister Víctor Perez, said on Sunday that the violence had come from a "minority" of protesters.

The images of the blazing churches was a stark reminder of the months of violent protests that broke out in Santiago last October 18, initially over a rise in metro fares.

The unrest quickly broadened into generalized protests against the country's stark inequalities and left some 30 dead and thousands wounded.

Demonstrators on Sunday also called for their countrymen to vote to "approve" the proposed constitutional change.

"This is the opportunity to say 'enough!' We're here and we're going to vote for 'Approve,'" Paulina Villarroel, a 29-year-old psychologist, told AFP.

On October 25, more than 14 million Chileans will decide whether to amend the constitution.

The referendum to decide whether to change the constitution established under the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) was originally due to take place in April but had to be postponed as the country of 18 million reeled from the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

For those supporting a yes vote -- notably the leftist opposition -- a new constitution would allow for the establishment of a new and fairer social order in one of the Latin American countries most marked by economic and other forms of inequality.