Troops surround occupied legislature in Brazil
AFP, Monday 6 Feb 2012
Tensions spike in Brazil as armed policemen occupy a local legislature building in Bahia state demanding higher pay and better working conditions

Federal troops surrounded a local legislature in the Brazilian city of Salvador early Monday after it had been taken over by armed police officers whose strike action has sent homicides spiraling.

Local media reported that electricity supply to the building had also been cut off as authorities stepped up pressure on the strikers to surrender.

A force of 3,500 army, navy and federal police had practically taken control of the northeastern state of Bahia after leading police officers went on strike on Wednesday demanding higher pay.

Homicides have skyrocketed since the strike. State officials said 83 murders were reported over the past five days, more than twice the number for the same period last year. Assaults and store lootings also increased.

The head of the state legislature, Marcelo Nilo, urged the strikers to leave the building. The site "cannot be used as a refuge for those fleeing justice," Nilo said.

But strike leader Marcos Prisco said the police officers were determined to resist.

"An attack by the army can result in a catastrophe," Prisco warned, according to the G1 website. "I cannot control the reaction of the strikers. It could result in a battle of one armed force against another."

About 4,000 armed policemen and members of their families, including about 300 children, have barricaded themselves in the building, demanding an amnesty, according to Prisco.

"The government knows that 99 percent of us are armed. If they try to evict us there will be a bloodbath," an unidentified police officer told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

One strike leader was arrested on Sunday on charges of "incitement to violence, forming gangs and theft of public property," officials said. Arrest warrants were outstanding against 11 other leaders.

Local residents were fearful.

"For the last two days I have not left my apartment," Italian businessman Marco Baghin told reporters. "It made no sense to risk being attacked or robbed."

Bahia Governor Jaques Wagner has declared the strike illegal.

The strike and the spike in violence came just two weeks before millions of tourists were expected to arrive for Brazil's premier tourist event, the Carnival.

Bahia, Brazil's fourth most populous state with a population of 13.6 million, is an important center for Carnival celebrations.

"This strike, in the way it is being carried out, is unacceptable," Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said.

Crime fears were having a dire economic affect.

Pedro Galvao, president of the Association of Travel Agencies of Bahia, told Brazil's O Globo newspaper that 10 percent of tourists had already canceled their air and hotel reservations for the Carnival.

Some 10,000 police officers, or one third of the Bahia police force, were on strike, demanding a 50 percent pay raise, better work conditions, and no retaliation, the state Public Safety Department said. The average wage for a state officer is about $867 a month.

Bahia police also went on strike in 2001 for one week demanding a pay raise.