Two days of violent unrest in Santiago have seen metros and buses burned, and clashes between riot police and protesters

Santiago (AFP) - Chile was at a standstill on Sunday following two days of violent protests sparked by anger over economic conditions and social inequality that left three people dead, killed in the torching of a Santiago supermarket.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed while an overnight curfew was imposed on Santiago and a state of emergency called in three regions.

Santiago’s Mayor Karla Rubilar told reporters two people burned to death in the blaze at a store owned by US retail chain Walmart in the early hours of Sunday.

The third victim died later in hospital.

They were the first deaths in the worst unrest since Chile returned to democracy in 1990, following the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

It marked the first time in the post-Pinochet era that troops have been deployed in what has otherwise been one of Latin America’s most stable countries.

Protesters set fire to buses, smashed up metro stations, knocked down traffic lights, ransacked shops and clashed with riot police in Santiago and other cities.

Almost all public transport in the capital of seven million people was paralyzed on Sunday even after the curfew ended at 7:00 am, with shops shuttered and many flights in and out of Santiago’s international airport cancelled.

Louis de Grange, president of the state Metro S.A. company, told Canal 13 the “brutal destruction” of Santiago’s metro service had caused more than $300 million in damages.

The violence comes just a month before some of the world’s most influential leaders, including US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, are due in Santiago to discuss trade at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

- ‘Brutal criminal violence’ -

What started earlier in the week as a protest against a hike in metro fares, escalated dramatically on Friday as demonstrators expressed anger over social inequality and the government’s liberal economic system.

On Saturday, Chile President Sebastian Pinera announced he was suspending the fare increase, a day after declaring a two-week state of emergency.

Pinera acknowledged that those in the streets had “good reasons” to protest but called on them “to demonstrate peacefully.”

“Nobody has the right to act with brutal criminal violence,” he said.

Soldiers were deployed in the streets for the first time since Chile returned to democracy in 1990

The appeal failed to prevent further rioting and looting, not just in Santiago but also in the cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion, where a state of emergency has also been declared.

Soldiers have been deployed in the capital as well as the O’Higgins and Coquimbo regions that have experienced unrest.

“We’re sick and tired, enough already. We’re tired of them screwing around with us. Politicians only do what they want to do, and turn their backs on all reality,” said Javiera Alarcon, a 29-year-old sociologist protesting outside the presidential palace in Santiago, which was surrounded by police and military vehicles.

AFP video showed security forces blasting a crowd with water cannon, and riot police wrestling young protesters into vans.

“Having analyzed the situation and the appalling actions that occurred today, I have made the decision to suspend freedoms and movement through a total curfew,” Army General Javier Iturriaga, who is overseeing security during the state of emergency, said on Saturday.

Dozens of protesters torched a building belonging to Chile’s oldest newspaper, El Mercurio, in Valparaiso on Saturday evening, while elsewhere in the port city a metro station, supermarkets and other stores were set on fire.

- Caught flat-footed -

A state of emergency was declared late Friday and hundreds of troops ordered into the streets

Santiago’s entire metro system – South America’s largest and most modern and used by around three million people a day – was shut down Friday as protesters burned and vandalized stations.

At least 78 stations were damaged, some of which were totally destroyed and could take months to get them operational again.

The hike in fares that set off the violence would have raised the price of peak hour travel from 800 to 830 pesos ($1.13 to $1.15). The government said the hike, which follwed a 20-peso increase in January, was driven by rising oil prices and a weakening peso.

Initially, students and others responded by fare-dodging, but underlying social tensions quickly bubbled to the surface.

On Friday, the headquarters of the ENEL Chile power company and a Banco Chile branch – both in the center of Santiago – were set on fire and heavily damaged.

People were infuriated by a photo of Pinera eating pizza in a restaurant with his family while the city burned.

Chile has the highest per capita income of Latin America at $20,000, with expected economic growth this year of 2.5 percent and just two percent inflation.

But there is an undercurrent of frustration with an economic model that has virtually privatized all health care and education, at a time that falling pensions and rising costs of basic services has exacerbated existing social inequality.