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Guatemala condemns fire at Congress; 12 injured in protests

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala’s government called fires set by protesters at Congress “terrorist acts” while the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on Sunday condemned what it called an “excessive use of force” by police against demonstrators opposed to a new budget that slashes social spending.

Protesters broke into the Congress building and set one office afire on Saturday, and tossed rocks at police. Flames poured out of the building’s neoclassical facade.

Police used tear gas and nightsticks to push demonstrators back, attacking not only about 1,000 demonstrators in front of Congress but also a much larger protest in front of the country’s National Palace. Some protesters also damaged bus stations.

The commission wrote in its Twitter account that it “condemns the excessive use of force by authorities against demonstrators” but also asked for an investigation into “the acts of vandalism against Congress, after which State agents indiscriminately suppressed the protest.”

It said governments “must respect peaceful demonstration,” but when faced with violence, they “must identify persons — protesters or third parties — who risk rights or infringe State property.”

The protests were part of growing demonstrations against President Alejandro Giammattei and the legislature for approving a budget that cut educational and health spending.

Lawmakers approved $65,000 to pay for meals for themselves, but cut funding for coronavirus patients and human rights agencies.

Giammattei’s interior minister, Gendri Reyes, said “a group of people attacked with terrorist acts, throwing firebombs to destroy Congress buildings. They tossed rocks and used weapons against security forces.”

About 10,000 demonstrated protested in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City against corruption and the budget, which protesters say was negotiated and passed by legislators in secret while the Central American country was distracted by the fallout of back-to-back Hurricanes Eta and Iota as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like the future is being stolen from us. We donít see any changes; this cannot continue like this,” said Mauricio RamÌrez, a 20-year-old university student.

The amount of damage to the building was unclear, but the flames initially appeared to have affected legislative offices, rather than the main hall of Congress.

Giammattei condemned the fires in his Twitter account Saturday.

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