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Peru protests build as interim president calls for calm

LIMA (Reuters) - Peruvian interim President Manuel Merino called for calm as he swore in his new cabinet on Thursday amid protests that have escalated around the country since the abrupt ouster of former leader Martin Vizcarra.

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Merino, whose cabinet was filled with mostly technocrats, accused some critics planning to run in 2021 elections of inciting protests that have broken out in Lima and other cities and urged Peruvians to maintain peace.

“We respect those who have a dissenting opinion, but we call for calm and responsibility so that any political expression is given within the scope of tranquility and non-violence,” Merino said in a speech after the swearing-in of his cabinet of 18 officials.

Merino assumed office on Tuesday after the Andean nation’s fractured Congress voted to oust Vizcarra over bribery allegations. The political shakeup comes as Peru, pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic, is bracing for its worst economic contraction in a century.

Merino appointed Jose Arista, a former farms minister and deputy finance minister, to the key economy portfolio. Carlos Herrera was appointed to the powerful energy and mining ministry after already served twice in the post.

“We are not going to produce any traumatic change, the state must continue to function and respect the professional and technical work in all areas,” Merino said.

Crowds have gathered in the streets for days to protest the Congress vote, with dozens of demonstrators detained after clashes with police who have at times used tear gas, prompting concern from some human rights organizations.

On Thursday night thousands took to the streets in Lima, banging pots and carrying banners to protest against the new government.

“Enough of the corruption, that’s why I’m here with my pot, shouting,” said teacher Rosario Mendoza, while protesting in the capital. “Neither Congress nor the president who they have installed represent me.”

The Organization of American States (OAS) also expressed concern on Wednesday over the “new political crisis in Peru,” urging the country’s Constitutional Court to weigh in.

Vizcarra, arriving at a prosecutor’s office that is investigating him, said that protests reflected people’s dissatisfaction with the situation. He also criticized the appointment of conservative politician Antero Flores-Araoz.

“It’s like going back to the past, to traditional politics,” he said. “The people have given Mr. Merino their answer.”

The political turmoil has shaken markets with Peru’s sol currency dipping 0.5% on Thursday to an 18-year low.

Reporting by Marco Aquino; Additional reporting by Maria Cervantes and Reuters TV; Writing by Cassandra Garrison and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman

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