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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mexico riot police retreat as violence flares

OAXACA, Mexico, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails forced riot police using tear gas and water cannons to retreat on Thursday as clashes spiraled out of control in Mexico's tourist city of Oaxaca.

At least 10 police were seriously injured and many demonstrators suffered beatings and burns in the running battles in streets around a university that has been a flashpoint during months of leftist protests in the city.

To control the protests to demand that Oaxaca's state governor Ulises Ruiz step down, President Vicente Fox sent thousands of federal police to take over the city last weekend. The five-month-long conflict has killed over a dozen people.

The police quickly seized Oaxaca's picturesque colonial center, which draws tourists from around the world, but have failed to take control over the rest of the city.

The gray-clad police closed in on Benito Juarez Autonomous University in armored trucks and with helicopters roaring low overhead, spraying water cannons and firing tear gas canisters as they tried to clear barricades of flaming vehicles.

But activists responded with a hail of rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks loaded with nails. Thousands of people streamed into the area. Some surrounded an armored car, dragging out two police and beating them before their fellow officers rescued them.

When the police finally retreated, area streets filled with thousands celebrating their victory, hugging each other as police in helicopters lobbed a token few last gas canisters.

"Ulises has fallen," the crowds shouted, although the governor has insisted he will not stand down.


Fox had promised to resolve the crisis before he hands over power to President-elect Felipe Calderon on Dec. 1, but the government conceded it faces a long haul.

"We will advance as much as we can between now and November 30, but we are aware the effort for Oaxaca has to be extended for months, for years, with the federal government's determined participation," Interior Minister Carlos Abascal said.

Activists forced local and state police out of the city in June, took over government offices, barricaded streets and imposed a form of vigilante justice, often beating up alleged thieves and tying them to trees.

The crisis began in May with a teachers' strike but leftist and Indian groups joined calls for Ruiz's departure, accusing him of corruption and brutality in squashing dissent.

While Oaxaca is one of Mexico's cultural jewels, it is surrounded by rural areas of extreme poverty.

Some fear the conflict could trigger unrest elsewhere in Mexico, where the divide between rich and poor was highlighted during this year's bitter presidential election.

Fox finally moved federal forces to Oaxaca after gunmen apparently linked to local officials shot and killed three people, including a U.S. journalist, last Friday.

The latest rioting coincided with the annual Day of the Dead festival. Oaxaca usually attracts thousands of tourists during the festivities, but they have been scared away by the months of chaos.

Protest leader Flavio Sosa said demonstrators would not back down until the federal police left the city and arrested colleagues were released. (Additional reporting by Daniel Aguilar)
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