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Tear gas and blast bombs as violence flares in Brazil

Riot police in Brazil have clashed with demonstrators exchanging volleys of tear gas and fireworks during a day of protest venting frustration at the country's leadership.

Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay sent this despatch from the frontline of the unrest.

It was ostensibly a day of protests and a general strike against pension reforms proposed by the Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

In reality it was a protest against him and his ultra right-wing policies on virtually every subject.

People protect themselves from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by the Brazilian riot police during clashes at the national strike protest
Image: People take cover from the volley of tear gas and rubber bullets during the protests

The country had woken to tyres burning in its largest city Sao Paulo, schools and banks shut across the country and widespread disruption of public transport.

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It was the opening match day in the Copa America football competition, South America's equivalent of the Euros, ensuring busy bars and fanatical fans wondering through Rio de Janeiro enjoying another day of sun-drenched beaches amid high anticipation.

But it was also the venue for the last main demonstration on this day of protest.

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We joined the crowds as they gathered outside the Candelaria Church in the centre of the city. The numbers weren't huge but were in the many thousands.

A child receives treatment from demonstrators after been injured during clashes
Image: Bystanders went to the aid of a mother and daughter engulfed by tear gas

As they began their march along one of the city's main streets, Avenida Brazil, I talked to the demonstrators.

They were there to support the pensions protests but they came from a vast cross section of society, joining together to fight their own causes.

President Bolsonaro has been dubbed the "Trump of the Tropics" so you might guess where he is coming from.

He has been attacked for his policies or disregard for women's rights, gay rights, the rights of indigenous people, the environment, education, health and the economy, to name a few.

He has only been in office since January.

So this was always likely to be a vociferous and, quite likely, violent confrontation with the armed, riot gear-clad security forces watching the demonstration.

When we spotted a group of men and women, dressed in black, scarves masking their faces and carrying anarchist flags it became a racing certainty.

Cameraman Richie Mockler walked into the middle of their group and was immediately pushed away as he started filming. I saw one of the men carrying a banner attempt to hit him over the head.

A Brazilian riot Police officer hides after shooting rubber bullets against demostrators
Image: Snatch squads moved on the crowds from both sides and from the front

He finished filming and we walked to the head of the march as it approached its destination, the city's main train station, now surrounded by dozens of riot police.

The demonstration came to a halt.

The anarchists regrouped in an organised formation using their wooden placards as shields and from behind they fired volleys of extremely loud firecrackers at the police.

And so the violence started.

The police returned fire with baton rounds. We could see them hitting banners ten metres away.

They then opened up with tear gas and blast bombs, firing into the marchers following behind.

It immediately caused panic, sending demonstrators fleeing for safety in all directions, hiding in alleyways or sheltering in shops and bars.

The police moved on the crowds from both sides and from the front continuing to fire tear gas and blast bombs as firecrackers were shot back.

Snatch squads followed running groups of men and women down side streets, the sounds of blast bombs ricocheting off the walls of the narrow streets.

In the chaos a mother and daughter were engulfed by tear gas.

Bystanders rushed to help them, spraying water into their eyes to soothe the burning pain.

Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro
Image: The national protests are aimed at the government of President Jair Bolsonaro

From the skies police helicopters monitored the protesters as their demonstration was slowly dismantled on the ground.

The violent intervention of anarchist groups in legitimate protests is nothing new here.

But it certainly does not help the cause of thousands who are demanding their voices be heard by a government now notorious for not listening.

This was the president's first general strike since taking over six months ago. He will likely face many more.

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