By Marco Aquino
LIMA, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Peru, battling one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks and a five-month lockdown, was reeling on Monday after the deaths of 13 people, most of them young women, in a stampede at an illegal nightclub triggered by a police raid.
The tragedy at the club, which authorities called "a breeding ground" for COVID-19, has exposed tensions in the Andean nation of 33 million people that has one of the world's worst per capita fatality rates with almost 28,000 deaths.
Infections are rising again in a dangerous second wave and total almost 600,000, the sixth highest in the world.
With Latin America an epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, countries are grappling with how to slow the spread of infections while easing quarantines in the face of rising public anger at the tough economic and social impact.
The police raid in the early hours of Sunday morning, which prompted a rush for the club's exit, was to enforce a ban in effect since March on bars and nightclubs. This month the government has re-tightened rules on social gatherings.
Geraldine Sanchez, who visited the club with her sister hours before the incident, told Reuters TV they had only planned to stay a short time at the venue before going home. Her 24-year-old sister died in the stampede.
"Thank God I was saved. Otherwise I could have suffocated and died there like my sister," she told Reuters at the door of the morgue in search of information about the body of her sister. "Tear gas bombs were fired and women were scared."
The government has denied that the police used tear gas or weapons in the raid, while President Martin Vizcarra has called for strong punishment of the nightclub's owners. Police say a preliminary examination indicated no use of tear gas.
The club's owners and many of the partygoers have been arrested or detained, and many have tested positive for COVID-19, the government has said.
Reuters was unable to reach the owners for comment.
'BREEDING GROUND' FOR INFECTION
Authorities said the party at the club had risked spreading the virus. Eleven of the 13 victims tested positive for COVID-19 and 15 of the 23 detained also, police said.
"The nightclub was a breeding ground for the transmission of this disease: there was a viral load because it was a closed environment," Claudio Ramírez, a health ministry official, told reporters after rapid tests on attendees.
Images on social media and TV footage showed police officers hammering at a door to rescue victims. On the stairs were shoes, broken bottles and masks.
"The nightclub had not had an operating permit since 2016. We don't know how it operated," councilman Javier Sulca, from the Los Olivos municipality of Lima, told reporters.
Peru was one of the first in the region to impose a strict lockdown, which failed to slow the rise in infections, while hammering the mining-driven economy, which contracted 30% in the second quarter of the year, one of the deepest in the world.
The tragedy could open another flank of criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic. Vizcarra's popularity remains high, but has fallen in recent months. On Monday, the opposition-dominated Congress summoned Interior Minister Jorge Pérez to explain what happened at the club.
On social media, many were critical of those who went to the club, though others called for an investigation into the actions of the police over the deaths.
"Attributing the blame to the young people who attended the disco is to have lost social empathy," Marcel Velázquez, a Peruvian professor of history and literature, wrote on Twitter.
"Several of the deceased are my daughter's age, I feel the pain of the parents."
(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Tom Brown)
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