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Brazilian police crack down on pre-World Cup protest

Police in Sao Paulo fired tear gas on Monday to disperse protesters supporting a subway strike that has unleashed transport chaos three days before the Brazilian mega-city hosts the World Cup kick-off.

SAO PAULO: Police in Sao Paulo fired tear gas on Monday to disperse protesters supporting a subway strike that has unleashed transport chaos three days before the Brazilian mega-city hosts the World Cup kick-off.

The strike has threatened to disrupt transportation plans for Thursday's opening match in the sprawling business hub of 20 million people, when the world's eyes will be on Brazil.

Around a billion people worldwide are expected to watch the game on TV, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and 12 heads of state and government will be in the stadium, which workers are rushing to finish before Brazil play Croatia.

The demonstrators are backing a five-day-old walkout by subway workers, the latest in a wave of protests and strikes that has swept Brazil ahead of the World Cup and elections in October.

A group of about 150 strikers and protesters set fire to piles of garbage to block a busy downtown avenue, prompting two-dozen riot police to use stun grenades and tear gas to disperse them.

Police detained 13 strikers who had entered a central subway station, but the other demonstrators regrouped with chants of "there won't be a Cup, there will be a strike!"

The protest grew to about 1,000 people, who marched to the state transport secretariat waving red banners, banging drums and blowing whistles and vuvuzelas.

World Cup teams, meanwhile, continued arriving in Brazil, with reigning champions Spain touching down on Sunday night.

France, Cameroon, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras and the United States were all arriving on Monday -- the latter three in Sao Paulo.

The latest clashes came four days after police fired tear gas at strikers inside a central station.

Transport officials said 60 strikers were fired for "just cause," accusing them of vandalism, blocking commuters and inciting people to jump turnstiles.

Union president Altino Melo dos Prazeres warned that the sackings would "inflame" tensions, but the government and the strikers agreed to meet later Monday.

The union has reduced an initial demand for a 16.5-per cent wage hike to 12.2 per cent, but the government is offering only 8.7 per cent.

The union voted Sunday to continue the strike despite a $222,000 daily fine imposed by a labour court that deemed the walkout illegal.

The five-line subway has been operating partially, causing headaches to 4.5 million users and forcing people to find alternative routes to the Corinthians Arena that will host the opening ceremony and match.

Prazeres said he was confident the strikers had the upper hand.

"I don't believe the government wants to thwart this Cup," he told AFP, adding that the union also wants to avoid harming the tournament. "I'm a fan of football and the Brazilian team. I like Neymar."

Rising inflation and a sluggish economy have tarnished the World Cup glow in Brazil, fueling the anger of strikers and protesters who say the $11-billion budget would have been better spent on education, health and transport.

"The strike will last until the World Cup if necessary," said Arthur Lessa, a 24-year-old subway worker, who said many colleagues struggle to make ends meet.

Authorities are keen to resolve the latest labour dispute and avoid further embarrassment in a World Cup hit by delays and cost overruns even before it has started.

The 61,600-capacity Corinthians Arena has become a symbol of the problems besetting the tournament.

At the weekend, workers were still racing to finish the over-budget and chronically delayed stadium.

Work on the 12 host stadiums has also been overshadowed by accidents that have killed eight workers, including three at Corinthians.

President Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking reelection in October, insists the money spent on the tournament will leave a lasting legacy of modernised transport infrastructure.

But many of the promised projects have been shelved, adding to protesters' anger.

Last year during the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, more than a million people flooded the streets, some trashing property and clashing with police.

Recent protests have been smaller, but activists are vowing to revive last year's "Tropical Spring" during the World Cup.

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