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Interior Minister, Police Chief Fired After Paraguay Clashes

ASUNCION, Paraguay — President Horacio Cartes fired Paraguay's interior minister and top police official on Saturday following the killing of a young opposition party leader and violent overnight clashes sparked by a secret Senate vote for a constitutional amendment to allow presidential re-election.

Dozens of people, including a police officer, were arrested Friday evening in demonstrations that saw protesters break through police lines and enter the first floor of Paraguay's legislature, setting fire to papers and furniture. Police used water cannon and fired rubber bullets to drive protesters away from the building while firefighters extinguished blazes inside.

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Fidelino Quintana, left, and Maria Arrua stand next to a coffin with the remains of their son, Rodrigo Quintana, in Asuncion, Paraguay, Saturday, April 1, 2017. Jorge Saenz / AP

In the early hours Saturday, 25-year-old Rodrigo Quintana was shot and killed at the headquarters of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, a different location than the congress building where most of the protests took place. Anti-riot police with rifles and their heads and faces covered by helmets had stormed the opposition headquarters amid the anti-government protests.

Security camera footage showed people in a corridor running desperately away from police and Quintana falling to the ground, apparently hit from behind. Seconds later, a policeman carrying a gun is seen stepping on Quintana, who is laying face-down to the ground.

Before stepping down, police commander Crispulo Sotelo identified Gustavo Florentin as the police agent responsible for Quintana's death and said he had been arrested. Later Saturday, Cartes announced that he had accepted the resignations of Sotelo and Interior Minister Miguel Tadeo Rojas.

Because of the violence, Saturday's and Monday's sessions of the Chamber of Deputies were cancelled. "We will evaluate the situation on Tuesday," said legislative president Hugo Velazquez.

People ram a barrier into the Congress building during clashes between police and protesters in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017. Jorge Saenz / AP

The protests broke out after a majority of senators approved the amendment allowing for presidential re-election, a move opponents said was illegal because the vote was taken without all members of the senate present. Presidents are limited to a single 5-year term and the proposal would allow Cartes and Paraguay's previous presidents to run for the top job again in the 2018 election — a hot button issue in a country haunted by the 35-year rule of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

"My colleagues have carried out a coup because of the irregular and illegal manner in which they modified no less than the Constitution," Sen. Luis Alberto Wagner of the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party said after the Friday evening vote.

The process to pass the amendment began on Tuesday when 25 senators changed the internal procedures to speed up the vote against the wishes of Senate President Roberto Acevedo and other members of the chamber.

Acevedo, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, said that process violated Senate rules and he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to have the decision overturned.

Political analyst Ignacio Martinez said the extreme reaction to the move likely lies in fears of another long-running government like that of Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay from 1954-1989 after a military coup.

Sen. Efrain Alegre, president of the Liberal Party, left, and an unidentified man, who were injured during clashes between police and protesters, in a truck as they are transported away from the congress building, in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31. AP

The measure for a constitutional amendment allowing for presidential re-election was backed by 25 of the country's 45 senators. The yes votes came from members of the governing Colorado Party and from several opposition groups.

After approval in the Senate, the proposal went to the Chamber of Deputies, where 44 of the 80 members belong to the Colorado Party. Approval there would require the scheduling of a national referendum on the amendment.

Cartes said that Vice Minister of Internal Security Lorenzo Lezcano would replace Rojas as interior minister, and police subcommander Luis Carlos Rojas would take over for Sotelo.