Peru violence: Pressure mounts on President Merino after two die in protests

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By Associated Press
Protesters take refuge from tear gas launched by police to disperse protesters refusing to recognize Peru's new government, in Lima, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
Protesters take refuge from tear gas launched by police to disperse protesters refusing to recognize Peru's new government, in Lima, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Pressure mounted on Peru's interim president to resign Sunday after a night of protests in which two people were killed and the country's political turmoil deepened.

At least nine of Manuel Merino's Cabinet members quit and the president of Congress scheduled an emergency session to discuss the leader's resignation.

The chaotic events came as thousands marched through the streets of Lima wearing masks and carrying signs that read, “Merino is not my president.” Authorities said two men, ages 24 and 25, died from gunshot wounds during the demonstrations.

Merino, a little-known politician and rice farmer, rose to Peru's highest office Monday after the legislature voted to oust former President Martín Vizcarra. Lawmakers utilized a clause dating back to the 19th century to declare the president of “permanent moral incapacity” based on unproven allegations that he'd accepted bribes while serving as governor years ago.

Angry Peruvians have taken to the streets ever since in daily demonstrations accusing Congress of staging a parliamentary coup.

Merino, who until recently served as the head of Congress, did not immediately respond to the growing calls for his resignation after Saturday's protests.

Earlier Saturday, the embattled leader denied the protests were against him, telling a local radio station that young people were demonstrating against unemployment and not being able to complete their studies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Peru has the world’s highest per-capita COVID-19 mortality rate and has seen one of the region’s worst economic contractions this year.

Prime Minister Ántero Flores-Aráoz told RPP radio early Sunday he'd been trying to get ahold of the president without any luck.

The protests are unlike any seen in recent years, fueled largely by young people typically apathetic to the country’s notoriously turbulent politics who view Vizcarra's ouster as a power grab by lawmakers.

Polls show most Peruvians wanted Vizcarra to stay in office. The ex-president is popular for his anti-corruption crusade, which led to frequent clashes with the legislature, where half of the members are themselves under investigation.

“I am very sad over the deaths caused by the repression of this illegal and illegitimate government,” Vizcarra wrote on Twitter. “The country won’t let the deaths of these brave youths go unpunished.”

International rights organizations have warned that police are using excessive force in trying to quell the protests. Dozens have been injured by rubber bullets and tear gas has been deployed near homes and hospitals.

“We are documenting cases of police brutality in downtown Lima,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter. “Everything indicates repression against peaceful protesters is intensifying.”