Fire, smoke, gunshots in Paraguay capital as pandemic response ignites protests

Paraguayans protest against President Mario Abdo Benitez's health policies and the lack of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines in Asuncion, Paraguay March 5, 2021. REUTERS/Cesar Olmedo

ASUNCION (Reuters) - Protesters clashed with police in Paraguay´s capital, Asuncion, late on Friday as anger over the government´s handling of the coronavirus crisis boiled onto the streets and forced the resignation of the country´s top health official.

Security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas on hundreds of rioters who gathered around the Congress building in downtown Asuncion, while protesters broke down security barriers, burned road barricades and threw stones at police.

The riots, which turned the capital's historic center into a make-shift battlefield of fire, smoke and gunshots, broke out amid growing outrage as coronavirus infections hit record levels and hospitals verged on collapse throughout the South American nation.

"It is a pity that young people have taken this too far. They are people who seek only to destroy," Interior Minister Arnaldo Giuzzio told the Telefuturo television channel. "This violence does not make sense."

Earlier on Friday, health minister Julio Mazzoleni resigned, a day after lawmakers called for his ouster.

Mazzoleni is the latest of several top health officials across Latin America forced from their jobs in recent weeks amid increasing anger over the handling of the pandemic and slow rollout of vaccinations.

Mazzoleni initially rebuked the Senate's non-binding declaration asking him to leave, but hours later conceded following a meeting with President Mario Abdo.

Abdo appointed Dr. Julio Borba, a vice minister, to take Mazzoleni's place. Borba told reporters he would begin tracking down medicine and supplies immediately.

Paraguay is posting record numbers of cases daily, according to a Reuters tally, with 115 infections per 100,000 people reported in the last seven days.

The country has vaccinated less than 0.1% of its population, the data shows.

(Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler)

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