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Riot police sweep striking teachers from Mexico City’s main plaza

Squads of riot police backed by water cannon Friday swept into the historic heart of Mexico’s capital, scurrying between bonfires to flush out striking teachers, some of whom swung pipes and threw rocks at security forces.

As helicopters hovered overhead, masked protesters fleeing the square tore up pavement, installed impromptu barricades and tossed rocks.

By late afternoon, police had cleared the vast plaza of a sprawling tent camp that striking teachers installed in August, but were still battling protesters on nearby streets, using tear gas. Acrid smoke wafted through the streets.

The police action came just two days before President Enrique Pena Nieto is to deliver the annual “grito,” or cry of independence, from the balcony of the National Palace, which overlooks the plaza – the focus of Independence Day celebrations that draw tens of thousands. An annual military parade also is to unfold there.

The plaza, known as the Zocalo, is a main tourist attraction in the capital, bordered on one side by the Metropolitan Cathedral and on the others by colonial hotels, City Hall and the imposing National Palace.

The teachers have been protesting education reforms that will require them to undergo annual evaluations and give up the ability to bequeath jobs to their offspring. The striking teachers have disrupted life in Mexico City repeatedly in the past two weeks, blocking the city’s main thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma, forcing legislators to abandon the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and snarling commutes in a city with already lengthy traffic tie-ups. At one point a week ago, the tent city held as many as 10,000 striking teachers

Pena Nieto’s security spokesman, Eduardo Sanchez, announced earlier Friday that authorities had given the teachers until 4 p.m. to clear away the tent city.

When 4 p.m. rolled around, Sanchez told the Foro TV channel that “the teachers are pulling out, paying heed to our call for them to pull back.”

But hundreds remained, setting nylon tarps alight in bonfires in the square, and throwing rocks and homemade explosives at a phalanx of approaching riot police. A water cannon doused the protesters as they retreated to the periphery of the plaza, then to nearby streets.

Ruben Nunez, a leader of the teachers union branch from Oaxaca state, said infiltrators had mingled with striking teachers and were responsible for the vandalism.

Television images showed scattered fires in the downtown area, apparent evidence that some of the protesters had tossed firebombs.

Police did not give an immediate report on injuries, although television newscasts showed images of a handful of people bleeding from wounds.

In early evening, two leaders of the dissident Coordinator of National Educational Workers, Ruben Nunez and Francisco Bravo, arrived at the Interior Secretariat to hold talks about the ongoing strike.

A move to improve Mexico’s educational system and break the control of the national teachers union over schooling has been one of the most popular measures taken by Pena Nieto since he was sworn in Dec. 1.

In late February, his government arrested the powerful head of the union, Elba Esther Gordillo, on corruption charges. Congress passed sweeping proposals to yank control of hiring and firing from the union. Those laws went into effect Tuesday.