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Fujimori’s ‘finest hour’ evolves into nightmare of death, violence

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LIMA, Peru — It was President Alberto Fujimori's 62nd birthday, his inauguration day for an unprecedented third term and Peru's Independence Day.

But as tear gas volleys crackled, Fujimori's scripted finest hour turned into his darkest one: The largest opposition protest against his decade in power and his tainted election victory degenerated into pitched street battles.

Some 1,500 club-brandishing students and hard-line workers charged, and black-clad riot troopers countercharged throughout the day. By late evening, five people were found dead in a burned-out building, and dozens were injured in the protests.

While Fujimori attended a solemn Te Deum Mass in Lima's downtown Cathedral behind rings of riot police, water cannon trucks and armored personnel transports, bedlam reigned blocks away.

As Fujimori was sworn in to a third five-year term at the 120-seat Congress, hundreds of demonstrators ran pell-mell down streets. Vandals set bonfires in streets and the lobby of a 14-story public building.

It began as some 1,500 rowdy demonstrators set off independently of a largely peaceful march and tried to make their way to the Congress. Four blocks shy of their goal, police stopped them.

Demonstrators taunted the police, then charged their lines, and the police responded with tear gas, firing directly into the crowds, witnesses say. Gunshots also were heard being fired in the air.

Some protesters snatched flaming hot tear gas canisters, thrown by police, and lobbed them back. They threw them on rooftops, starting small fires.

For hours in fits and bursts, the battle raged from one street corner to the next, the tear gas canisters tracing an arcing plume of smoke across an overcast sky before dropping into the crowds.

Many ran coughing, fainting and collapsing as homemade gas masks, bought for as little as 30 cents, failed to work.

As fire raged in the 14-story former Education Ministry, an office tower, demonstrators wouldn't let firefighters approach at first, tussling with them for control of water hoses.

"Please allow the ambulance in to let the injured out," said a firefighter who helped evacuate three injured building guards.

Vandals tried to use a stop sign as a battering ram against the 30-foot-tall wooden doors of the Palace of Justice, then lobbed firebombs through the windows,

Two opposition congress members, along with other opposition leaders, tried to persuade protesters to stop hurling rocks. "No! No! No!" Congresswoman Anel Townsend shouted.

They ignored their leaders, and police fired tear gas again. Protesters charged, pushing police back.

Vandals then set fire to the 13-story Banco de la Nacion and the six-story building across the street containing the National Elections Board, which supervised the election that many say was rigged in Fujimori's favor.