Chile protesters stay in streets as Pinera says their demands 'loud and clear'
By Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Protesters rallied in Santiago and around the country on Thursday afternoon as President Sebastian Pinera sent the first of a promised raft of legislation to Congress in a bid to address calls for an end to Chile's entrenched inequality.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered for mainly peaceful demonstrations which on Thursday included dancing, some displays of nudism, carnival-type costumes, and effigies of Pinera. There were also more instances of looting at supermarkets and clashes with police.
Prosecutors said on Thursday that since Wednesday night 734 more people had been charged in connection with protests, looting and arson nationwide, with 324 taken into custody in Santiago. More than 7,000 have been charged since Saturday.
Protests that started over a hike to public transport fares boiled over on Friday into riots that have left at least 16 people dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars' worth of damage to businesses and infrastructure.
An online poll conducted by local company Activa Research of 2,090 people between Oct. 22-23 found 83% of respondents said they supported the goals of the demonstrators, but 72.5% said they did not support violence as a method of protest.
'OPPORTUNITY FOR CHILE'
Pinera, a billionaire businessman, spoke to the nation on Thursday morning in a televised broadcast, saying he had heard "loud and clear" the demands of Chileans.
The president said he would send a bill to Congress later on Thursday that would overturn a recent hike in electricity rates, one of several measures he said he hopes will turn the violent demonstrations into an "opportunity" for Chile.
He said he would follow it on Friday with a bill to increase the minimum pension by 20%.
"I will keep sending projects to Congress to ... breathe life into this social agenda," Pinera said.
Ivan Flores, president of the opposition-led chamber of representatives, said lawmakers would skip a previously-planned recess to fast-track the reforms.
Octavio Solis, 43, an unemployed security guard, said he hoped the government acted quickly.
"We're tired of all this, the protests, the looting. It's a disaster. This isn't the Santiago we once knew," Solis said as he waited in line to receive an unemployment payment.
"We need good salaries and pensions for our elderly."
Copper miners in Chile, the world's top producer, said the riots had mostly spared production but problems persisted with port facilities, public transport and supply chains.
Most of Chile's private miners, including BHP Group Ltd <BHP.AX>, Anglo American Plc <AAL.L> and Teck Resources Ltd <TECKb.TO>, reported minimal impacts to their operations on Thursday.
Truck drivers slowed traffic to a crawl on a major route connecting Santiago to port cities on Thursday, driving slowly in solidarity with protesters.
Chile's defence minister, Alberto Espina, said the authorities had launched investigations into allegations of abuse by security forces, as footage shared on social media purported to show excessive force used by police and soldiers.
Reuters could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the footage.
"Let the institutions do their work," Espina told reporters on Thursday, calling on members of the public to be patient. "I ask that we don't prejudge."
U.N. human rights boss Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that she would send a mission to her home country to investigate allegations of human rights violations.
The Chilean government said it would welcome a U.N. delegation, along with representatives of global NGO Human Rights Watch.
Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera said on Thursday that there was "no chance" the government would call off two major global meetings in Santiago in the coming months, including welcoming U.S President Donald Trump and China's Xi Jinping.
Hernan Larrain, the justice minister, said the curfew and state of emergency would only be called off once violent attacks had ceased.
He said the deployment of the armed forces had been welcomed in poorer neighbourhoods where, self-defence groups of people in yellow jackets have sprung up to patrol with rough weapons including bats and metal bars.
"We must value the work they have done to contain this situation," he said.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Additional reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Chris Reese and Daniel Wallis)