SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ Police fired tear gas Thursday to stop 200 students protesting poor living conditions in this impoverished Caribbean nation.

Police said they arrested 12 students. No injuries were reported.

The protesters, from Santo Domingo's State University, were demonstrating in support of a 48-hour general strike called Monday by several trade, student and neighborhood groups to demand higher wages and protest deteriorating living standards.

In an about-face Thursday, President Joaquin Balaguer said he sympathizes with leaders who called the strike and is willing to negotiate with them. Last week he refused to talk to them. There was no immediate response from strike leaders.

Thursday was pay day for many people, and residents anticipating the strike flocked to supermarkets to stock up on food.

Police fired the tear gas to stop students moving the demonstration from the university campus to downtown streets. Protesters retaliated by smashing car windshields in the area, which prompted the arrests.

In anticipation of possible unrest Monday, police armed with automatic rifles searched for weapons in vehicles entering the Dominican capital Thursday.

They also rounded up discarded tires along city streets to prevent protesters using them to build burning barricades.

Monday's strike also was called to demand better government services in the city, which is plagued by water shortages and power failures.

The independent newspaper Ultima Hora reported several similar demonstrations this week by poor residents of the central Dominican cities of Santiago, La Vega, Salcedo and Mao.