Monday, January 8, 2007

November 4, 2006: Oaxaca protesters regroup after Mexican federal police retreat from university

Protesters demanding the governor's resignation in troubled Oaxaca state received fresh support Friday from the country's largest leftist group, a day after forcing federal police from one of their strongholds during six hours of often-violent clashes.

The Democratic Revolution Party said it would join the protesters in a demonstration planned for Sunday in Oaxaca City and would have its followers form human chains around federal police detachments entering the city that day.

The party previously kept its distance from the Oaxaca protest movement a coalition of leftist and anarchist protesters calling for the resignation of Gov. Ulises Ruiz that seized the capital city for five months until being removed by police in a Sunday raid.

The country's top police official, Public Safety Secretary Eduardo Medina, said he expected life to be back to normal in Oaxaca City by the end of the month, despite ongoing fierce clashes in the city's streets.

On Thursday, the demonstrators lobbed firecrackers, gasoline bombs and rocks at police who had surrounded Oaxaca's state university. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons in violent skirmishes that left 20 protesters, 10 police officers and three news photographers injured.

"We are not at war with anyone," Medina said Friday. He added that federal police were trying to create an environment in which negotiations between the two sides could take place.

Federal police have said they are seeking to clear street barricades so that traffic can return to normal, and that they have no plans to storm the university, where the protesters have set up one of their headquarters and are broadcasting messages from its radio station.

On Friday, dozens of masked youths patrolled the barricades re-established outside the university, some carrying long plastic or metal tubes used to launch powerful fireworks against police. Inside the university, teacher and protest supporter Guillermo Contreras said "we are on maximum alert. We will fight their weapons with our spirit and dignity."

Under Mexican law, the university rector must give the police permission to enter. Rector Francisco Martinez, speaking on the university radio station Thursday, called the operation an "attack" and demanded that the police withdraw, which they eventually did.

Protest leaders later dismissed any chance of resuming negotiations with the federal Interior Department. Spokesman Florentino Lopez demanded direct talks with President Vicente Fox instead. Fox was in Uruguay on Friday attending the Iberoamerican summit and his office did not issue a statement.

Also Friday, Ruiz, who is accused of rigging the 2004 election to win office and organizing bands of thugs to attack dissidents, reiterated that he would not resign. He accused radical groups from Mexico City of participating in protests like Thursday's clash.

A free medical clinic near the university reported that more than 20 protesters had been treated for bruises, cuts and injuries related to tear gas in that confrontation. Lopez claimed the number of injured was much higher.

The 10 injured officers received various gas-fire burns and bruises, the federal police said in a statement.

At least nine people have died in the conflict, mostly protesters shot by police or armed gangs. Among the victims was activist-journalist Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, who was shot in the stomach while filming a gunbattle last Friday.

The state prosecutor's office said Wednesday that two people were in custody in connection with Will's death. They were detained after residents identified them as the alleged shooters, and Mayor Manuel Martinez of Santa Lucia del Camino, where Will was killed, said the suspects are officials of the municipality, on the outskirts of Oaxaca City.

The Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders on Friday condemned "shortcomings" in the investigation into his death "and the fact that three others allegedly involved have been able to escape."

"The investigation in no way absolves the Oaxaca state government of responsibility in Will's death and we reiterate our call for the creation of a federal commission of inquiry," the group said in a statement.

It added it had information indicating two Guatemalan journalists have gone missing in Oaxaca.

The embassies of the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and Germany all have warned their citizens to avoid traveling to the region.

The conflict has shattered tourism in the city, which is popular for its colonial architecture, cuisine and ancient ruins.

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