Brazil: Striking police leave occupied building

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By JENNY BARCHFIELD, Associated Press

SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — Striking police officers in the northeastern city of Salvador on Thursday evacuated the state legislative building they occupied in protest for more than a week.

It was not immediately clear, however, whether the conclusion of the dramatic standoff between the strikers and 1,000 army soldiers and elite federal police officers would also mark the end of the 10-day-long work stoppage that has threatened one of the globe's biggest Carnival celebrations here.

Army spokesman Marcio Cunha didn't know whether the estimated 10,000 striking officers would return to the job, and some local media reported that negotiations were to continue.

The strike had sparked an immediate spike in violence here in Brazil's third-largest city, with murder rates more than doubling since it started last Tuesday. The murders, as well as a rash of shop lootings and holdups, have scared tourists away from Salvador in the run-up to the city's iconic Carnival festivities. State authorities have been under intense pressure to resolve the strike.

A total of 245 strikers evacuated the building early Thursday, filing out between rows of soldiers surrounding the building. All were adults. About 10 kids were evacuated earlier this week. Earlier in the week, there were reports that several children were inside the building.

An initial group of several dozen men and a handful of women left the building on foot early Thursday, while a steady stream followed on motorcycles and on cars packed with blankets and other gear. They were greeted with cheers by a group of family and friends, many of whom had camped out on the building's grounds for days.

Army spokesman Cunha said the legislature building appeared to be "dirty but in OK conditions." He declined to say whether arms had been found in the building or on those leaving it. The officers had been carrying their work weapons earlier in the building.

The strike's head, Marco Prisco, and another top leader were detained, said Cunha. Under the terms of an agreement with government negotiators, both were spirited out through a back entrance, far from the media scrum. They were taken to a military police facility in Salvador, Cunha said.

The fate of Prisco and other leaders was a major sticking point in the negotiations. Arrest warrants have been issued against 12 of the leaders on charges of organizing roaming bands to stir up panic in the city and of robbing police cars.

Seven remain at large following Thursday's arrests.

Bahia Gov. Jaques Wagner has alleged that the strikers were partly responsible for the wave of violence in a bid to strike fear into the public.

Recordings of what were purported to be Prisco's phone conversations suggested the strike leader incited his followers to commit acts of vandalism. Bahia's public security authority made the recordings, which were broadcast on television here late Wednesday.

The strikers have narrowed their demands to amnesty for the walkout and payment of bonuses that would add about $350 a month to officers' paychecks. Monthly salaries for officers in Bahia now range between $1,100 and $1,330, depending on rank and experience.

The state government has offered a raise of 6.5 percent as well as bonuses but refused to offer amnesty for the striking officers.

The evacuation in Bahia coincides with a meeting later Thursday in Rio de Janeiro where police, fire fighters and others were to decide on whether to strike.

A walkout by workers there could spell disaster for Brazil's premier Carnival showcase, slated to being on Feb. 18. The festivities in Rio attract upward of 800,000 tourists and pump more than $500 million into the city's economy annually.

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