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Police wrest control of Mexican city

MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press | October 30 2006

OAXACA, Mexico - Federal forces stormed Oaxaca and pushed protesters and striking teachers out of the city center they had occupied for five months, leaving the colonial city resembling a battleground, with riot police and burned vehicles lining the streets.

Police controlled the main square but leftist supporters roamed the streets with sticks and gasoline bombs. Protesters determined to keep up their fight to oust Oaxaca state Gov. Ulises Ruiz announced plans for new marches Monday. Graffiti-smeared storefronts, cafes and hotels were shuttered in what was once a favorite of tourists.

At least one demonstrator was killed in clashes Sunday as federal police backed by armored vehicles and water cannons tore down barricades on their way into the city. Protesters said late Sunday that a second had been died. Authorities did not confirm that.

There was still uncertainly over whether 1.3 million schoolchildren would return to classes Monday. Teachers had agreed to end a strike that closed schools across the southern Oaxaca state, but it was unclear if the police presence would undermine that deal.

The protests began in May as a teacher's strike in this southern Mexican city of roughly 275,000. But the demonstrations quickly spiraled into chaos as anarchists, students and Indian groups seized the central plaza and barricaded streets throughout the city to demand Ruiz's ouster.

After the deaths of video and documentary-maker Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, and two local residents in a shootout during a Friday protest, Fox sent in thousands of federal police who launched the first major offensive Sunday to end the unrest.

Protesters accused Ruiz of rigging his 2004 election and using thugs to kill or crush political opponents.

"We are not willing to go back until we get written guarantees" for teachers' safety, said Daniel Reyes, one of the last of the striking teachers to leave the main square as police gathered around it Sunday night.

During the strike, some dissident teachers tried to open schools, and parents armed with sticks and pipes fought off protesters who tried to block the entrances to schools that were able to open.

Late Sunday, protesters decided to abandon the center and regroup at a local university. They pledged to continue to their battle to force Ruiz's resignation, even as police tore down the banners and tents that had served as their headquarters for months of often violent demonstrations.

"We are going to leave this area ... while we regroup and look at strategies to recover this area," Reyes said, adding that the retreat was to "protect the safety" of protesters.

While protesters did not appear to have thrown any of the gasoline bombs some carried, the potential for violence was still great. Ruiz was scheduled to give his state-of-the-state address Monday.

At least nine protesters have died in clashes with police in the city since August. But President Vicente Fox, who leaves office Dec. 1, had resisted repeated calls to send federal forces to quell the violence, opting instead to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

That changed with Friday's fatal shootings, and police entered the city Sunday with helicopters clattering overhead. They marched up to a final metal barrier blocking the center, but pulled back as protesters with sticks attacked them from behind, hurling burning tires. The air filled with black smoke and tear gas.

A male protester was killed during a clash at a barricade. Protesters identified him as a 15-year-old killed by a bullet, while a human rights group said he died after being hit by a tear-gas canister, and they could not confirm his age.

Protesters broadcasting over a local radio station claimed a second body, apparently a protester's, had been found.

Protest spokesman Roberto Garcia said 50 supporters had been arrested and police were searching houses, looking for protest leaders. Police did not immediately confirm that.


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