OAXACA, Mexico (AP) – For months, outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox resisted repeated calls to send federal forces to quell protests and violence in this city, opting instead to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.

But after the deaths of an American and two local residents in protests on Friday, Fox sent in thousands of federal police who launched the first major offensive Sunday to end five months of unrest in a city that was once one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions.

Armed with assault rifles and riot shields, the police stormed in, bypassing barricades, touching off fierce street battles and eventually taking back control of the city center from protesters who had held it since May.

A human rights worker said a 15-year-old protester was killed but authorities did not immediately confirm his death.

As night fell, police seized control of city’s central square, where the protests had been headquartered. Explosions could be heard regularly in outlying districts, as vehicles burned and demonstrators set off powerful fireworks.

Protesters said they had tried to contact the Interior Department late Sunday to negotiate, but were unable to reach anyone.

They also said electricity was cut to the radio station being used to transmit information to demonstrators.

Protest spokesman Roberto Garcia said 50 of their supporters had been arrested and police were searching houses, looking for leaders of the unrest. Human rights worker Jesica Sanchez said the 15-year-old boy was killed when he was hit by a tear-gas canister.

Earlier, as helicopters roared overhead, officers in black helmets entered the city from several sides, reinforced by armored vehicles, trucks mounted with high-pressure water cannons and bulldozers. They marched up to a final metal barrier blocking the city center, but pulled back as protesters armed with sticks attacked them from behind, hurling burning tires. The air filled with black smoke and tear gas.

Some demonstrators used syringes to pierce their arms and legs, then paint signs in their own blood decrying the police.

Protesters readied bottles filled with gasoline and other homemade bombs, but did not use them against police.

“I think their strategy isn’t working,” said protest leader Hugo Pacheco, who was leading a group against a column of police holding a position three blocks from the city center. “I don’t think this has worked for them because the people, we, the people, are right.”

What began more than five months ago as a teacher’s strike in this colonial southern Mexican city of roughly 275,000 spiraled into chaos as anarchists, students and Indian groups seized the central plaza and barricaded streets throughout the city to demand the ouster of Oaxaca state Gov. Ulises Ruiz.

Protesters accused Ruiz of rigging his 2004 election and using thugs to kill or crush political opponents. They say his resignation is not negotiable and they won’t return home without it. The violence has driven tourists from one of Mexico’s most popular destinations, forcing hotels and restaurants to close their doors.

Police and state forces – often in plainclothes – have shot at protesters, setting off clashes in which at least eight people have died.

Fox, who leaves office Dec. 1, had hoped to avoid further violence and negotiate a peaceful end to the unrest. But his top Cabinet member, Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal, oversaw weeks of talks that failed to end the standoff.

On Saturday, a day after gunfire killed a U.S. activist-journalist and two residents, he sent thousands of federal police in transport planes into the city.

Once breathtaking, Oaxaca’s main plaza is now covered with graffiti, having served as a home base for protesters who first seized the area in late May.

Officers from the Federal Preventative Police climbed over burned-out vehicles, hijacked tractor-trailers, buses and sand bags blocking streets as they moved toward the plaza. Some residents emerged from their homes to cheer and wave white flags, others fought to beat back their advance.

On one major street, police buses had most of their windows shattered by protesters hurling rocks and massive chunks of concrete.

Protest leaders urged those at street barricades not to respond to advancing police with violence Sunday, though some demonstrators promised a street-by-street battle. Bertha Munoz, one of the movement’s leaders, said that many demonstrators were peaceful.

“How can we confront them? We have already seen the R-15 (rifles) and AK-47s they carry,” she said.

In Mexico City, several hundred supporters of the Oaxaca protests converged on a hotel where Ruiz was rumored to be staying, damaging the grounds and screaming “Murderer! Murderer!”

The protesters estimated that around 4,000 federal police had taken up positions around the edges of Oaxaca. There were no official reports, however, on how many officers were deployed.

Late Saturday, protesters gathered to mourn Bradley Roland Will, 36, of New York, who was killed during a shootout between protesters and men they claim were local officials in Santa Lucia del Camino on Oaxaca’s rough outskirts.

Will, whose body was laid out in a white shirt and a glass-topped coffin at a funeral parlor near the square, was remembered as a video and documentary-maker devoted to the protesters’ cause.

A video posted by Indymedia.org showed the last minutes of footage Will shot Friday, apparently including the moment he was hit by gunfire.

U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said in a statement that those who shot Will may have been Oaxaca police, and Mayor Manuel Martinez Feria of Santa Lucia del Camino said five men seen brandishing pistols at the time of the shooting had been turned over to authorities. He identified them as two members of Santa Lucia’s city council, two of that town’s police officers and a former justice of the peace from another town.

In a statement, Will’s family said it was “grieving over the tragic and senseless loss of Brad’s life.”

“Brad’s friends and family admired his brave support for the downtrodden and willingness to act tirelessly upon his convictions. We believe he died doing what he loved,” it said.

The tense weekend standoff comes after teachers agreed to return to work by Monday; their strike has kept 1.3 million children out of classes across the southern state. It was unclear if police presence would undermine that agreement.

On the Net:

Will’s video (Spanish site): http://video.indymedia.org/en/2006/10/542.shtml

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