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Mexican police gas leftist lawmakers, protesters

Reuters / Oliver Ellrodt | August 15 2006

Mexican riot police used tear gas and clubs to drive back leftist legislators and supporters protesting outside Congress on Monday in the first violent clash over a fiercely contested presidential election.

Several lawmakers from the left-wing party whose presidential candidate narrowly lost the July 2 election were slightly injured when police swept through their protest camp.

Demonstrators threw rocks back at the federal police lines. It was the first time the government has deployed police to break up protests that began days after the election and have until now been peaceful.

"They hit us all, they fired gas at us. I still haven't recovered from the tear gas," Elias Moreno, a senator of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who claims the election was stolen by his conservative rival Felipe Calderon, have turned the center of Mexico City into a sea of tents and extended their protests to Congress on Monday.

Dozens of protesters put up tents on one side of the imposing concrete building. They are trying to surround Congress to stop President Vicente Fox from delivering his annual state of the nation speech there on September 1.

Calderon, the candidate of Fox's conservative National Action Party, said on Monday a partial vote recount carried out last week has confirmed his victory and he is confident Mexico's top electoral court will now declare him president-elect.

Breaking several days of silence in the bitter fight over the July 2 election result, Calderon said no serious irregularities had been found in the 9 percent of ballot boxes included in the recount, which ended on Sunday.

"Not one significant anomaly was found," Calderon said. "On the contrary, it ratifies ... that we won the elections."

FRAUD CLAIMS

The court is studying the recount results to see if there was any evidence of the massive fraud alleged by Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who has promised to end free-market reforms and pull millions out of poverty.

The court has to formally declare the winner by September 6 but Calderon said he hoped to get the nod in the next two weeks.

Lopez Obrador says the recount, called by the court after PRD pressure, showed tens of thousands of votes were miscounted or are simply missing from polling stations.

On Monday, his supporters blockaded several office buildings of Banamex, the bank group owned by U.S.-based Citigroup, and stopped employees from getting to work.

Lopez Obrador wants all 41 million votes counted again and warns he will extend a campaign of civil resistance if the court rules in Calderon's favor to stop him taking office.

"The confrontation, the post-electoral crisis, is going to get worse," said PRD spokesman Gerardo Fernandez.

Calderon insisted a total recount was unnecessary. The official result from the July election gave him a winning margin of about 244,000 votes, or 0.58 of a percentage point.

He has kept a low profile recently, preferring to use senior aides in the political battle while trying to cut deals behind the scenes to build support for his economic reforms program.

Last week supporters of Lopez Obrador briefly blocked access to the stock exchange, foreign-owned banks and the finance ministry. They have been given free rein by Mexico City police, largely because the PRD runs the capital.

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