By Rodrigo Viga Gaier
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian police went on strike in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, risking a surge in crime just days before the beach city's famed carnival celebrations.
Salvador, Brazil's third largest city, has already been hit by a crime wave since police walked off the job there last week. The Rio strike is likely to force the government to send in thousands of army troops, as it did in Salvador.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists will descend on Rio next week for carnival parades of scantily clad women dancing to samba bands and raucous street parties in the annual pre-Lenten bash.
Both Rio and Salvador are two of the 12 Brazilian cities that will host the 2014 soccer World Cup and the police strikes add security fears to concerns about inadequate infrastructure for the global sports event in Latin America's biggest country. Rio will also host the Olympics in 2016.
The World Cup is expected to attract as many as 600,000 foreign visitors two years from now. Having already faced criticisms by FIFA, soccer's governing body, over the country's preparations for the event, Brazilian officials are scrambling to ensure that security woes don't complicate matters further.
Thousands of police, firefighters and prison guards voted to strike in Rio, demanding higher wages. It was not immediately clear how many of the 70,000 workers in those posts would comply with the call for strike.
Rio state authorities have said 14,000 army troops were ready to protect the city from the wave of murders, looting and vandalism that hit Salvador after 20 percent of the 31,000 police officers of the northeastern state of Bahia walked off their jobs on January 31.
Salvador's striking policemen remained defiant on Thursday and voted to continue their stoppage even after hundreds of them ended an occupation of the state legislature.
Some of the vandalism in the city was allegedly committed by police officers themselves, complicating negotiations with state officials who have refused the strikers' demands that officers be pardoned for any crimes during the walkout.
President Dilma Rousseff, who late last week dispatched 3,000 federal troops to Bahia to restore order, backed state officials' unwillingness to consider an amnesty.
"There can be no amnesty for illegal acts, crimes against property, crimes against people, crimes against public order," Rousseff said on Thursday during a visit to Bahia's neighboring state of Pernambuco. Such an amnesty, she added, would create "a country without rules."
Although many Brazilians understand the plight of the police, whose wages are low compared with many private-sector workers, the chaos caused by the walkout has brought wide condemnation of the strike by government leaders and the general public.
"It's not possible for those who receive money and arms from the people for protection to use those arms against them," said Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo.
The federal government, he added, would deploy more troops and additional resources if needed in other states to ensure that the chaos does not spread. Carnival, he predicted, will proceed "with absolute tranquility."
Carnival begins February 17 and lasts through February 21.
(Additional reporting by Sergio Queiroz in Salvador and Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Writing by Alonso Soto; Editing by Peter Cooney)