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Brazilians back on street against high travel fares – Police arrest 60 for demanding rollback

business2SAO PAULO: Thousands of youths clashed with riot police across central Sao Paulo late Thursday in a fresh round of rowdy protests over higher mass transit fares. Police reported at least 60 arrests following running battles with demonstrators demanding a rollback of an increase in bus, metro and train ticket prices from $1.50 to $1.60. Small groups of vandals set fire to garbage in the streets, while others smashed store windows or spray-painted buses. Protests over higher bus fares were also held in Rio, a major tourism gateway and a host city for the Confederations Cup that kicks off today.

More than 2,000 people, most of them students, marched down Rio's central Rio Branco Avenue to demand lower bus fares, which rose from $1.29 to $1.38. In the central Brazilian city of Goiania, the local transport company suspended the fare hike in response to protests. The Sao Paulo demonstration began with an estimated 5,000 youths, many of them students waving red flags of the Trotskyist Unified Socialist Workers' Party (PSTU) and chanting leftist slogans, massed outside the Baroque-style Municipal Theater near City Hall. Some banners read "We will not tolerate being exploited" or "Our rights have a price."

"We want the fare increases to be scrapped and a free (transport) pass for students," 23-year-old Alina Bailo of the Union of Rebel Youth told AFP. But Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad told reporters that the new fares would be maintained because they are "well below inflation." After a tense standoff outside the Municipal Theater, two dozen helmeted riot police, armed with batons, shields, tear gas and shotguns, mounted a show of force.

Backed by other members of the tactical squad in SUVs and motorcycles, they methodically cleared the area as six police helicopters circled overhead. But the young demonstrators fanned out in other parts of Brazil's economic capital and most populous city. Police sealed off Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo's main thoroughfare, under strict orders not to allow the demonstrators to enter.

Some of the demonstrators linked their struggle to a strike launched earlier in the day by rail workers of the Metropolitan Train Paulista Company demanding higher pay and other work benefits. The strike affected three of the six lines operated by CPTM, which carries 2.6 million passengers each day. It sparked traffic chaos across the metropolitan area, home to 20 million people.

But the strikers later agreed to return to work and await a court ruling on their demands next week. Late Tuesday, Sao Paulo demonstrators ransacked 87 buses, hurled petrol bombs and smashed windows during clashes with police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Shops, public telephone booths, banks and some metro stations were also vandalized.

The Free Pass Movement, one of the sponsors of the Sao Paulo protests that began last week, meanwhile accused the military police of provoking the demonstrators. In an op-ed published in the daily Folha de Sao Paulo, three members of the movement said the police's "violent actions" had "transformed the protest into a popular revolt." "The immediate popular demand is that the fare increase be rescinded. And it is on those terms that any dialogue must be established," they added.

Reporters Without Borders slammed the military police's treatment of journalists covering the protests. Three journalists were arrested during clashes between police and demonstrators, including two who were charged with obstructing police before being released an hour later, the Paris-based media freedom organization said. The third was charged with "forming a criminal gang" and "property damage," and is still being held. "These police abuses constitute serious violations of freedom of information," the group said. "Journalists must not be treated as if they were demonstrators. The police must undertake to respect their neutrality and their physical integrity." - AFP

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This article was published on 14/06/2013