Subway service in Chile's capital suspended as protest grows

Demonstrators protest against the increase in the subway ticket prices in Santiago

"I have declared a state of emergency and, to that end, I have appointed Major General Javier Iturriaga del Campo as head of national defence, in accordance with the provisions of our state of emergency legislation", President Sebastian Pinera said on Friday night.

The state of emergency is initially set for 15 days and restricts freedom of movement and assembly.

Chile is one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, but also, among its most unequal.

Subway service in Chile's capital was suspended Friday, trapping hundreds of thousands of commuters on their way home from work, after high school students flooded subway stations, jumping turnstiles, dodging fares and vandalizing stations as part of protests against a fare hike.

Television pictures showed protesters throwing stones, attacking police vehicles and burning at least one bus.

Here and in other cities, people banged together pots and frying pans - a typically Latin American form of protest. "Chile was a pressure cooker, and it exploded in the worst way", said a civil servant who gave her name only Maria, waiting to catch a bus amid the detritus of Friday's protests.

High school and university students began the protest after the government hiked fares on October 6 by as much as $1.17 for a peak metro ride, blaming higher energy costs and a weaker peso.

The situation further deteriorated when some seven stations were set on fire, bank branches and supermarkets attacked and the country's main electricity company headquarters building, -several stories high-, emergency facilities were ignited. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters, who blocked thoroughfares with barricades in several parts of the city.

There had been several fare-dodging actions in recent days, organized on social media, but the protests escalated Friday, tapping into general discontent among many Chileans amid an economic slowdown and calls for reforms to labor and tax laws and the pension system.

The Santiago Metro, at 140 kilometres the largest and most modern in South America, is expected to remain closed this weekend and could reopen gradually next week.

However, tech-savvy younger Chileans, who did not live through that dark period, are leading the current protests.

"This is not a discussion that should have risen to the level of violence that we've seen", she said. There reportedly is no curfew at the moment, though the government does have the power to implement one.

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