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State Department:  Demonstrations in Guatemala Constitute 'An Affront to Democracy' - 2003-07-25

The United States is expressing concern about election-related demonstrations in Guatemala, and urging former military strongman Efrain Rios Montt, in particular, to curb violence by supporters of his controversial presidential candidacy.

The United States is condemning, as "an affront to democracy," demonstrations in Guatemala in support of Mr. Rios Montt which have flared into violence and resulted in the death of least one person, a journalist covering the unrest who died of a heart attack.

Several thousand people took part in a rally for Mr. Rios Montt Thursday in Guatemala City which turned violent and included attacks on journalists accused by members of the crowd of opposing the former general.

Mr. Rios Montt, who ruled the country at the head of a military government in the early 1980s, has said he wants to run in a presidential election set for November 9th but his candidacy is under legal challenge.

He has been barred from running twice before under a constitutional amendment barring former coup leaders from the presidency and the issue of his current candidacy is to be reviewed again by the country's Constitutional Court.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated a U-S statement late Thursday calling the demonstrations "dangerous, an affront to democracy and not part of the democratic process."

He dismissed Mr. Rios Montt's claim that he had no control over the violence, saying his Guatemalan Republican Front party was giving material support to the protesters:

"We have noted some statements by Mr. Rios Montt. He said he couldn't control his supporters. But in fact we know his party is supplying tents, food, portable toilets to the demonstrators. And so we think the party should cease that kind of support to these violent demonstrations," said Mr. Boucher.

He added that the United States has a stake in the stability of Guatemala and a "profound interest" in human rights and democracy there, and said U-S officials are following the situation very closely.

Human rights groups say thousands of political opponents were killed by security forces during Mr. Rios Montt's rule.

In an unusual move, the State Department said in May that it "would be difficult" to have a normal, friendly relationship with the Guatemalan government if Mr. Rios Montt won election later this year.

The State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City Friday in the wake of the violence and advised American citizens there to steer clear of demonstrations.