Protest-hit Chile vows to punish any abuses by security forces

By Fabian Cambero and Aislinn Laing

By Fabian Cambero and Aislinn Laing

SANTIAGO, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Chile's President Sebastian Pinera on Thursday promised to ensure police and soldiers found guilty of rights violations were prosecuted with the same force as rioters and looters during nearly three weeks of violent protests.

Prosecutors are investigating more than 800 allegations of abuses including torture, rape and beatings by security forces during demonstrations over inequality and cost of living that have often degenerated into riots.

A team sent by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief and former Chilean president, and another from Amnesty International, are also in Chile interviewing alleged victims.

"This president is committed to total respect for human rights at all times and in all circumstances," the center-right Pinera said from La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.

"With the same force that we are going to investigate, prosecute and sanction those criminal groups who have destroyed property, we will investigate any excess, failure of protocol in the use of force or excessive use of force."

Chile's worst unrest since the end of Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship has caused at least 23 deaths, more than 7,000 detentions, and injuries to 1,659 protesters and 800 police officers, according to authorities and rights groups.

Pinera said he had sought assurances from armed forces chiefs that international rules on use of force would be followed after declaring a state of emergency over the unrest that began on Oct. 18 after a hike in public transport fares.

He rejected criticism on social media that his ministers have only visited injured police, not protesters, saying he would visit demonstrators in coming days.


LORRY BLOCKADE

Protests continued on Wednesday. A lorry blockade of some major highways over high road tolls caused commuter chaos.

Pinera on Wednesday sent a law to parliament to guarantee a minimum wage of $480 a month, part of an ambitious social spending plan announced last month as the protests grew.

"We are responding with action and not just good intentions to those things that people have demanded with so much force," he said in the televised speech.

Chile's finance minister told the congressional budgetary committee on Wednesday that the government would draw $600 million from a sovereign wealth fund to finance the social plan.

Ignacio Briones said the $14 billion Social and Economic Stabilisation Fund would also be tapped for $850 million to plug a gap in Chile's finances, which he said would grow to 2.3% of GDP in 2020.

Chile, one of the region's most prosperous and normally most peaceful nations, last tapped its sovereign wealth funds after the 2009 subprime financial crisis and a 2010 earthquake.

Chile's protests are part of a wave of unrest this year around South America, including protests against Bolivia's President Evo Morales over a disputed election and Ecuador's Lenin Moreno over economic liberalization reforms. (Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)