Spanish riot police clash with anti-pope protesters

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Spanish riot police clashed for a second night with protesters as Pope Benedict XVI's lavish visit inspired a rapturous reception from pilgrims but deep resentment over the costs.

Anti-riot police late Thursday swung batons to disperse about 150 protesters, seething over the scale of the party, who had gathered in the central square of Puerta del Sol.

"They hit me five or six times," said a 30-year-old protester bleeding from the elbow, who gave only his first name Bruno.

The Puerta del Sol, birthplace of Spain's widespread "indignant" protests over the handling of an economic crisis, was also the scene of clashes on the previous night between activists and police.

The violence stood in sharp contrast to a party atmosphere among hundreds of thousands of pilgrims here for the 84-year-old pontiff, who was meeting Friday with Spain's king.

Huge speakers blare out pop music in the city centre as the youngsters milled around the heat in floppy hats, with yellow and red backpacks containing alcohol-free beer and fans.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church's 1.2 billion followers has expressed sympathy with those hurt by the crisis.

Benedict told reporters travelling with him to Spain that the world economy cannot just be allowed to run by free-market rules, and its heart should be "not profit but solidarity."

And on arrival Thursday, he said: "Many young people look worriedly to the future, as they search for work, or because they have lost their job or because the one they have is precarious or uncertain."

The pope on Friday evening will preside over a 700-metre (nearly half-mile) Stations of the Cross service, in which representatives from 15 nations will participate.

Some of the jewels of religious art from across Spain were placed on display in central Madrid for the ceremony, each an elaborate sculpture of the steps in Christ's crucifixion.

After a meeting with King Juan Carlos I, the pope was travelling to the monastery of El Escorial outside Madrid to meet with around 1,000 college professors.

The pontiff is also due to meet with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" on Saturday evening at an airbase southwest of the capital, where the pilgrims will spend the night on an esplanade the size of 48 football pitches.

Benedict celebrates mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.

But protesters -- including some priests -- are fuming over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73 million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the August 16-21 celebrations.

Nationwide unemployment stands at more than 20 percent while youth unemployment is running at more than 45 percent.

The Church argues most of the cost is covered by pilgrims, who must pay a registration fee, and it says the event will provide a major tourism boost to Spain.

© 2011 AFP

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