Protesters set Paraguay Congress ablaze, 30 injured in clashes over constitutional reform

Violent protesters in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion have stormed the National Congress building following a day of angry rallies over the senators’ closed-doors vote to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election.

The protests outside the Congress erupted after a group 25 lawmakers voted for the measure, two more than the 23 required for passage in the 45-member upper chamber, Reuters reported.

The opposition crowd that deemed the measure illegal was confronted by police wielding water hoses. As the violence intensified with activists breaking windows of the Congress building, the officers also fired rubber bullets.

Protesters then stormed the building and set it on fire, photos posted on social media show.

“A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us,” said Senator Desiree Masi from the opposition Progressive Democratic Party, as cited by Reuters.

According to local media reports, the demonstrators managed to storm the first floor of the Congress after overrunning the poorly armed police lines. The rioters set fire to papers and chairs causing the flames to spread throughout the floor.

The building was eventually cordoned off by police after the entire ground floor reportedly burned down. According to local media, some MP’s are still inside the building.

“We guarantee that the police will not repress [you] again. We ask you not to break down the fences, not to try to enter the building of Congress,” said police commander, Crisis Sotelo, in a desperate televised plea to the rioters. “We ask for calm, tranquility.”

At least 30 demonstrators and police officers were injured in the clashes, the fire service said, according to AFP. Police are not reporting any civilian casualties in the clashes.

Local media reported that several politicians and journalists were among the wounded. Those injured included senior opposition politicians such as Senate speaker Roberto Acevedo, the agency said citing Senator Luis Wagner.

“The national police were not under any instruction to repress. They were attacked,” Interior Minister Tadeo Rojas said on local television, blaming a small group of rioters for attacking the building and the police.

This is the second time Friday that anti-riot police are confronting the protesters. After the initial demonstration was repelled by rubber bullets and water cannons, the protest grew more violent after nightfall.

Televised images also showed protesters burning tires and removing parts of the fence surrounding the Congress building. Police in riot gear responded by lobbing tear gas at the crowd.

Local media reports that several people have been hurt by rubber bullets. Among those who reportedly hit by rubber bullets is the former Minister of the Interior, Rafael Filizzola, of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, and the presidential candidate from Authentic Radical Liberal Party, Efraín Alegre.

Paraguay’s constitution, adopted in 1992, allowed for the country’s presidents to serve only a single term in office to guard against a return to dictatorship in a country where Alfredo Stroessner ruled for more than 30 years.

But an agreement between the ruling government and the opposition resulted in the approval of the amendment that would allow Paraguay’s president, Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party to run for re-election in 2018. The reform will also allow left-wing former president Fernando Lugo, who held power from 2008 to 2012, to run for office again.

Before the amendment is cemented, it must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies, where 44 of the 80 members belong to the ruling Colorado Party. The vote will take place early on Saturday, according to a document posted on the lower chamber’s official Twitter account.

Those in opposition to the re-election amendment have promised to resist the move, calling the change to the country’s constitution a “coup d’etat” and the imposition of a “dictatorship”.

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