Peruvians furious with the inauguration of Alberto Fujimori as president set government buildings ablaze today and chanted “the dictatorship will fall!” Tear gas and smoke turned the skies over the capital dark amid pitched street battles that left dozens injured.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators — some peaceful, but others throwing rocks and breaking windows — filled the streets. Inside the heavily guarded Congress building, a beaming Fujimori ignored the unrest sparked by a May 28 re-election many said was fraudulent and celebrated the beginning of an unprecedented third five-year term. It was also his 62nd birthday.
Fujimori wore the red-and-white presidential sash and raised his arms in a victory sign as opposition congressmen shouted insults and waved signs that read “New Elections Now.”
As Fujimori began his inaugural address, they walked out in protest of a vote tainted by charges of widespread fraud.
At least 80 people — police and demonstrators — were injured in the protests, four of them with bullet wounds, hospital officials said. Smaller protests also erupted in Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, some 450 miles southeast of Lima.
One of those hurt was a bloody-faced foreign journalist who was taken away in an ambulance after being hit in the face by a flying tear gas canister. It was unclear who the correspondent worked for.
As Fujimori swore to respect the country’s constitution, riot police outside fired bullets and tear gas into the crowds. A fire burned out of control in the lobby of the former Education Ministry, one of the tallest office towers in downtown Lima. Later, protesters’ fires gutted a state bank building and the building housing the National Elections Board.
Black smoke poured from the buildings and mixed with pungent tear gas. At one point a jetfighter screeched overhead as black-clad riot police and demonstrators battled on the streets below. Some 40,000 police had been called out.
‘Peru Does Not Want Violence’
The violence was unusual in a region where peaceful democratic elections have become commonplace.
The protesters had been called by opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo, who boycotted the May presidential runoff and accused Fujimori of planning to rig the results. He had planned to discredit today’s inauguration by organizing thousands for an outpouring of “peaceful resistance,” but violence quickly erupted as demonstrators marched toward Congress.
Toledo blamed the unrest on pro-Fujimori infiltrators sent to discredit the protesters.
“Peru does not want violence,” said the 54-year-old Stanford-trained economist.
Only about 1,500 of the protesters appeared to be trying to break past police lines. Demonstration leaders urged people to stop throwing rocks, but were ignored.
The injured foreign journalist’s face and head were covered in blood after he was hit by a tear gas canister that shattered his gas mask. An Associated Press correspondent said he watched as the journalist was helped into an ambulance and taken away.
A Peruvian journalist, Paola Ugaz of the opposition weekly Caretas, said she helped the man after the canister hit him in the face and apparently broke his nose. She said his injuries did not appear to be life-threatening. No details of his condition were available.
Increasingly Unpopular Leader
Fujimori still rates 43 percent support in opinion polls for his success in stabilizing the economy and beating the Shining Path and other guerrillas who took Peru to the brink of civil war in the early 1990s.
But the disputed election divided the nation of 25 million people and increased discontent at Fujimori.
Fujimori’s democratic credentials have been questioned since his “self coup” of 1992 when he took special powers to combat the Marxist guerrillas who had virtually surrounded Lima.
His autocratic style helped him vanquish hyperinflation and bring in billions of dollars of investment. But wages have stagnated and jobs are scarce, with half the population in poverty. Even fans in the business community are wary since he reversed some tax incentives and privatization plans last week.
Acutely aware of the criticism, Fujimori tried to project an image of consensus by appointing moderate opposition figure Fernando Salas, mayor of a poor provincial city, as his prime minister on Wednesday. But the high-profile post has little executive power.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.