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Chile's army under scrutiny in quake zone

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

Chilean soldiers on the streets of Concepcion
About 14,000 troops are now deployed in the quake-hit region

For a country with Chile's dark and violent past, the decision to send soldiers on to the streets to restore order in the wake of Saturday's devastating earthquake is a sensitive one.

For some, it evokes painful memories of the 1970s and 1980s, when Gen Augusto Pinochet regularly deployed troops to repress his opponents.

But for others, it's a necessary evil in a country reeling from what outgoing President Michelle Bachelet has described as the biggest catastrophe in its history.

"Imagine, for a coalition that has governed this country for 20 years and that fought against the dictatorship, the idea of having the military on the streets was not easy," government minister Sergio Bitar told the BBC.

So far, the signs are reasonably good. The military appears to be taking a softly-softly approach to the curfew

"But of course these are different military men," said Mr Bitar, who spent months imprisoned for his political beliefs in the 1970s.

"It's a different situation, and we're co-operating very closely with the armed forces. They're doing a nice job."

Mrs Bachelet decided to deploy thousands of troops to the quake-stricken area after survivors - desperate for food and water - started looting supermarkets.

The authorities have also imposed a curfew in some areas - the first time such a measure had been used since the Pinochet era.

Winning plaudits

While the decision was criticised by the Communist Party and others on the political left, many Chileans welcomed it. And that, in itself, is a sign of how military-civilian relations have thawed here since the divisive years of the dictatorship.

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Mrs Bachelet has been a key figure in that process. Her father was a senior air force officer who died in prison after being arrested by Gen Pinochet's henchmen, and she herself was a victim of human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

And yet she has stressed the need for reconciliation, both as president and in her previous role as defence minister.

The military's acceptance that it sinned in the past and its willingness - albeit sometimes grudgingly - to co-operate with investigations into human rights abuses from the Pinochet era have also brought it closer to the public.

Scores of former officers have been convicted since the country returned to democracy, and the military has largely accepted the verdicts.

Internationally, Chilean soldiers have won plaudits for their role in peacekeeping and rescue operations in Bosnia and most recently in Haiti in January, when its troops helped deal with that country's earthquake.

"In Haiti, your rescue teams were among the very best in the entire world," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded Chileans on Monday during a lightning visit to Santiago. Comments like that have helped restore Chilean pride in their soldiers.

Blind eye

Now that soldiers are on the streets of the country's second city, Concepcion, the reputation of the military is very much at stake.

Soldiers detain suspected looters in Concepcion
The army has arrested dozens of looters

Analysts say that if the troops handle the situation sensitively, they will further enhance their reputation.

But if they alienate the general public by being over-officious and oppressive, they could undo years of good work.

So far, the signs are reasonably good.

The military appears to be taking a softly-softly approach to the curfew, arresting people for attempted looting but turning a blind eye to those hundreds of shell-shocked survivors who are openly flouting the curfew by sleeping in the streets.

But the situation in the catastrophe zone remains tense.

Analysts say the military will have to tread carefully if it is to emerge from this crisis with its reputation intact as a force for good, not bad.




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