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Six die in Dominican protests of slumping economy
( 2003-11-12 09:54) (Agencies)

Six people were killed and at least 20 wounded in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday when violence erupted during a one-day strike to protest against government economic policy.

The six were shot during street clashes in the capital Santo Domingo and other parts of the country, the latest Latin American nation to see protests against unpopular economic policies.

Violence flared in several cities when protesters burned tires, pelted soldiers and police with rocks, smashed car windows and in one case, in the town of Azua, set fire to the offices of the ruling Dominican Revolutionary Party. By early evening, clashes continued in parts of the country.

Police and army units had reinforced major cities and dozens of activists were arrested before the strike.

The economy in the Caribbean nation has slumped after a boom in recent years and the country suffers high prices and near-constant power cuts.

The strike, which follows social unrest in Bolivia, Honduras and Ecuador in the last month, was called by labor unions and social activists to protest government economic policy, including austerity measures called for by the International Monetary Fund.

It was supported by leading opposition parties and part of President Hipolito Mejia's own ruling party.

The strike paralyzed much of the country, shutting down businesses and many schools. Public transportation was scarce.

Media reports said those shot dead were killed in Santo Domingo, Higuey, Santiago, Bonao and La Vega. A policeman and a soldier were among at least 20 people with gunshot wounds, media reports said.


Ramon Perez Figuereo, a spokesman for the protest organizers, said it had been a success, but denounced what he called repressive actions by the authorities.

Mejia, whose popularity has slumped in recent months but who still hopes to run again for president next year, appealed for calm.

"I know there are well justified reasons to protest," Mejia told reporters. "We are facing problems that we can't control, that come from external factors."

Wall Street investors with an eye on the country's government bonds are watching closely for signs of increased organized opposition to Mejia that could make it harder for him to implement the IMF-inspired austerity measures.

"They are in the midst of a very difficult political situation," said David Roberts, senior international economist at Banc of America Securities.

It was not clear how many people had been arrested during police and army round-ups ahead of the protest. Authorities put the figure at more than 600, but Perez Figuereo said 132 activists and labor leaders had been detained.

The strike coincided with plans for talks this week between Mejia's government and the IMF over a stalled $600 million, two-year standby loan. The IMF agreed to support the country after the collapse of a major bank, Baninter, threw the economy of the tourism-dependent country of about 8 million into a tailspin.

An IMF team was still expected to travel to Santo Domingo later this week to review the state of the economy under the loan approved in August, an IMF official said. The review was delayed last month, pending further analysis of the economic implications of the government's decision to purchase two major electricity distribution companies without the consent of the fund.

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