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Street vendors stage protest in Cuba

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HAVANA — About a dozen disabled Cuban street vendors, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, others blind or deaf, blocked a Havana street Saturday to protest alleged mistreatment by police, witnesses said.

It was a rare public act of defiance in communist-ruled Cuba, where political opposition is banned and anti-government protests are usually swiftly suppressed.

Police cars sealed off roads to the area in downtown Havana where the vendors who sell cigarettes, candy, peanuts and cheap crafts were protesting. Dozens of uniformed officers converged on the scene, and a crowd of several hundred bystanders gathered.

The disabled persons, many accompanied by shouting relatives and friends, angrily complained that a number of them had been roughed up by police.

"The police beat up the disabled people; they poked out the eye of one of them," Rafael Gonzalez, who walked with a crutch, told Reuters.

Other witnesses concurred, saying fighting broke out when police tried to move disabled street vendors and peddlers from the corner of Havana's Reina and Aguila streets, near the El Curita park.

It was not clear what had happened to the injured man, although some witnesses said he was taken away by police.

The disabled vendors, surrounded by bystanders, were led by police to a nearby building where local Communist Party officials said they would hear their grievances.

Senior police officers at the scene declined to comment. "I can't tell you what happened," said one, who wore the three white stars of a colonel.

A Reuters reporter at the scene had his notebook snatched from his hand and a uniformed police officer disconnected the sound leads from the back of the camera after a Reuters television camera operator filmed the scene.

Cuba's communist authorities are sensitive about foreign media coverage and often accuse foreign reporters of exaggerating incidents of public disorder or protests by political dissidents.

City authorities in Havana have in the past cracked down on illegal street vendors, moving them from some public sites and relocating them elsewhere.