, SALVADOR DE BAHIA, Feb 7 – Police strikers occupying the state legislature in the Brazilian city of Salvador vowed on Monday to resist if troops try to flush them out amid a tense standoff between the security forces.
Local media reported that authorities fired rubber bullets and lobbed tear gas canisters at demonstrators in clashes outside the assembly that left at least six people injured.
The strike, which began six days ago, cleared the way for a crime wave including at least 87 murders in and around Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, which will be a host city in the 2014 soccer World Cup.
The trouble also came just two weeks before millions of visitors were expected across the state for Brazil’s premier tourist event, the Carnival.
“We are holding talks to end the protest. The police strikers are demanding amnesty but the government can’t stop a judicial decision which orders the capture” of the strike leaders, Robinson Almeida, a spokesman for the state secretariat, told AFP.
The strikers are also demanding higher pay and better working conditions.
Earlier Monday, strike leader Marcos Prisco vowed “to resist,” warning that “if the army storms the building, there could be a catastrophe,” according to the Globo website G1.
Prisco said nearly 4,000 people – police who are on strike and their families, including 300 children – were inside the legislature.
In a telephone interview later in the day, the 42-year-old labor leader said he expected the standoff to “end up in negotiations.”
“The government wants my head. But I don’t understand why,” he told AFP, adding that the protest was “peaceful.”
“The strike is affecting the entire state, but in Salvador, the military deployment is bigger because they want Prisco’s head,” said striking policeman Ricardo Amando by telephone.
“We have some food, water and milk. We have light thanks to a generator which we turn off during the day,” he added, saying the military “could invade tonight.”
“If they have weapons, we have some too,” he warned.
More than 1,000 soldiers and police on Monday surrounded the occupied legislative assembly, Lieutenant-Colonel Marcio Cunha, an army spokesman, told AFP.
Outside the building, 300 supporters of the strikers held hands and formed a giant circle to say “Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be” prayers.
“We are fighting for our rights. If they want war, they will have war. Our fight is against the government,” Eduardo Nascimento, a 56-year-old military policeman, said.
A statement by the US embassy in Brazil urged its nationals to monitor security conditions “and to consider delaying any non-essential travel to those areas until the security conditions have stabilized.”
State officials reported 87 dead over the past six days, mostly in criminal violence in outlying poor suburbs, more than twice the number for the same period last year. Assaults and looting of stores also increased.
On Saturday, a contingent of 3,500 army, navy and federal police took control of security in Bahia three days after the protest began.
Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo told Globo television Monday that the federal government was prepared to send reinforcements if necessary.
A man who identified himself as Elias and claimed to be a leader of the protest told Salvador’s Metropoli radio that the main obstacle in the negotiations was the state government’s refusal to grant amnesty.
“If the government does not make concessions and only deploys the army to threaten, this will not solve things,” he added.
The speaker of the state legislature, Marcelo Nilo, had urged the strikers to leave the building before midnight Sunday, after which the strike would be declared illegal and orders would be given to capture its leaders.
“The assembly cannot be used as refuge by fugitives of justice,” he said in a statement. Although state authorities refused to grant strikers an amnesty they did offer to meet part of their pay demand if they ended the dispute.
Prisco turned down the offer Monday, according to G1.