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Chile evacuates tourists stranded by violent protests

SANTIAGO, Monday 17 January 2011 (AFP) - Police and military personnel evacuated some 3,000 people, including foreigners, stranded in southern Chile due to violent protests over a hike in natural gas prices, officials said Monday.

The Magallanes region, and especially its capital Punta Arenas -- some 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) south of Santiago -- have been rocked by protests for six days after the government announced a 17% price increase in the cost of natural gas.

Gas is vital for the region, which is used for heating and vehicle fuel.

Officials said that soldiers, navy sailors and air force personnel were mobilized to escort out the stranded visitors, mostly from Argentina.

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne -- still riding on a wave of popularity for his pivotal role in rescuing the trapped miners in northern Chile -- was sent down Monday to negotiate with regional leaders in an attempt to halt the protest actions.

Protesters have blocked all the main highways leading to the region, as well as the Punta Arenas air and sea ports.

The Chilean government on Sunday invoked a state security law allowing authorities to use the military to maintain public order as well as to triple penalties against protesters in the hope of quelling the unrest.

Two women were killed late Tuesday while protesting the gas price hike in Punta Arenas. Some 34 people were also arrested.

Natural gas prices are heavily subsidized in the country's far south, which is cold most of the year.

Demonstrators have blocked the city's port and kept people from getting off cruise ships and other boats that make port calls on the way to Antarctica or around the Strait of Magellan.

MySinchew 2011.01.18



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