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Police clash with protesters in Colombia as thousands march against Duque

By
Darryl Coote
Thousands of people protest during a national strike in the Bolivar Square of Bogota, Colombia, on Thursday. Colombian students and workers took the streets of the country to protest against President Ivan Duque. Photo by Diego Bauman/EPA-EFE
Thousands of people protest during a national strike in the Bolivar Square of Bogota, Colombia, on Thursday. Colombian students and workers took the streets of the country to protest against President Ivan Duque. Photo by Diego Bauman/EPA-EFE

Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Colombia Thursday despite the rain for a nationwide strike against President Ivan Duque, making it the latest South American country to become embroiled in anti-government protests.

Organized by unions following proposed cuts to pensions, the call to the streets became a beacon for teachers, students and those upset with the government of Duque, whose approval rating sits at a low of 26 percent.

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Along with anger over the pension cuts and other social issues, protesters fumed over the slow execution of a 2016 peace deal between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, that ended some 50 years of civil war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The protest march that began peacefully early Thursday in the capital of Bogota turned violent midday as police clashed with protesters and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

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Masked protesters vandalized the statue of Simon Bolivar in the city's historic Plaza de Bolivar square and others smashed windows and spray-painted the walls of landmarks, attracting the attention of the National Police Anti-Riot Squad.

Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa said 14 train stations and 19 trains had been vandalized and he tweeted a short video clip of protesters smashing windows.

"Each glass that they break, each citizen pays with their taxes" that could have gone to kindergartens, parks, security or roads, he said.

He said, however, the violence was very "concentrated" and he would not enforce a curfew though 10 police officers were injured, two seriously, during the day's confrontations.

"We are infinitely more the good citizens and as of tomorrow we will rebuild the city that we dream of," he said.

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The country has ordered its land and sea borders closed to restrict entry of people from Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, Colombia's Migration Agency Director Christian Kruger Sarmiento said.

Duque said police have arrested dozens of people.

"Today, despite the acts of violence, attributable to vandals that do not represent the spirit of Colombia, we show that this country can exercise individual freedoms without violating the freedoms of others," he said in a speech broadcast via YouTube. "The events that occurred after the march are pure vandalism and do not obey an expression of popular will, nor will they be legitimized by the right to protest."

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The protests come as Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and other South American governments have contended in recent months with public unrest born of dissatisfaction with their leaders and economic situations.

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