Chile's Pinochet imposes state of siege after weeks of violence
Santiago, Chile — After several weeks of increasing violence, Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet Ugarte has declared a state of siege. The declaration gives General Pinochet widespread powers ranging from the ability to send people into mass detention centers to closing Chile's borders. Pinochet told the nation Tuesday night he was imposing the harsh measures ''to safeguard democracy and liberty.''
Opposition leaders immediately decried the measure, saying it hearkened back to the period of government abuses that occurred shortly after the military coup that brought Pinochet to power 11 years ago.
Pinochet announced the state of siege after a tumultuous two weeks of protest and violence that have left at least 15 dead and hundreds arrested or sent into internal exile. Chile was already under a state of emergency, which is less severe than a state of siege but gave Pinochet sweeping powers.
The announcement came during a ceremony in which he announced Cabinet changes. The shifts came after Pinochet's entire Cabinet, led by Interior Minister Sergio Onofre Jarpa, resigned Monday.
Pinochet first threatened the state of siege in a speech last week in the seaside resort of Vina del Mar, just as a coalition of unions was mounting a two-day national strike in protest.
In that speech, Pinochet formally declared the regime was closing the path toward talks with opposition political parties. He said he would not budge from the terms of a transition to democracy laid out in the 1980 Constitution, which keeps him in power until at least 1989.
After Pinochet announced Tuesday night that Mr. Jarpa would stay on as interior minister, Jarpa told reporters cryptically that a political ''opening'' was still in effect in Chile.
But opposition leaders scoffed at the comment Wednesday, saying it served only to keep people confused while the government applies further repression.
''General Pinochet believes in the logic of force, which won't resolve the problems of unemployment, hunger, and the lack of freedom,'' said Ricardo Lagos, the head of the Democratic Alliance, which directs the protest movement. More protests will be called soon, Mr. Lagos said.
Violence during the strike called by unions last week took nine lives, and turmoil continues in Chile. Last Friday, a bomb killed four policemen on a bus in the port city of Valparaiso, and on Sunday extremists heaved hand grenades into a police precinct in Santiago, killing two officers.
Meanwhile, relations between the government and the powerful Chilean Roman Catholic Church are growing more strained. In early October, a church was bombed in the southern city of Punta Arenas, and investigators found the remains of an Army explosives expert in the rubble.
Church officials maintain that secret police have killed purported extremists in ''confrontations.'' And on Wednesday, the government announced it was refusing to allow Ignacio Gutierrez, the church's top human rights official, back into the country from the Vatican.
Just which measures under the state of siege the government will choose to use are still unclear. The military regime already has applied censorship to several opposition magazines and has sent more than 250 ''habitual delinquents'' to spend three months in internal exile in a military camp in northern Chile.