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By Marco Bello
SAN JUAN, July 22 (Reuters) - Thousands of people poured into the streets of San Juan on Monday in protests aimed at forcing Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello to resign over offensive chat messages, the latest scandal to hit a bankrupt island struggling to recover from deadly 2017 hurricanes.
Rossello's announcement on Sunday that he would not seek re-election next year and would step down as head of the New Progressive Party seemed to have little effect on the crowds, who called for him to immediately surrender the governorship. The island's largest newspaper on Monday called on the first-term governor to leave office.
Crowds of people, many dressed in black T-shirts and waving the U.S. island territory's flag, filled a major highway in San Juan in the latest in a series of more than a week of protests in the capital and elsewhere.
"They can't deny it: The power is in the street," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz wrote in a Twitter message on Monday.
Rossello, 40, asked for forgiveness and said he respected the wishes of Puerto Ricans in a message broadcast online on Sunday.
"I know that apologizing is not enough," Rossello said in a video posted on Facebook. "A significant sector of the population has been protesting for days. I'm aware of the dissatisfaction and discomfort they feel. Only my work will help restore the trust of these sectors."
His comments drew outrage from many Puerto Ricans, with social media videos showing San Juan residents leaning out of apartment windows banging pots and pans.
The publication on July 13 of sexist and homophobic chat messages between Rossello and top aides unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of devastating hurricanes in 2017, alleged corruption in his administration, and the island's bankruptcy process.
Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, called on Rosselló to resign in an editorial published on Monday.
"Puerto Rico has spoken up, not only as a strong, broad and united voice but as the right voice," the editorial said. "With a gesture of nobility and humility, Governor, it is time to listen to the people. You have to resign."
'POWER OF THE PEOPLE'
Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative to the U.S. Congress as well as Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers have called for the governor to step aside after nine days of sometimes violent protests.
Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos Mendez, part of Rosello's New Progressive Party, known by the Spanish acronym PNP, appointed an independent panel on Friday to investigate whether the chats warranted impeachment.
The political turmoil comes at a critical stage in the island's bankruptcy process as it tries to restructure some $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.
It has also raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers who are weighing the island's requests for billions of federal dollars for healthcare and work to recover from Hurricane Maria, which led to nearly 3,000 deaths.
Opposing Rossello are a raft of Puerto Rican celebrities ranging from singer Ricky Martin and rapper Bad Bunny to "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Martin, a target of the governor's chats, said he would march with protesters on Monday.
"I want to feel the power of the people," Martin, 47, said in a Facebook video, urging legislative leaders to start an impeachment process. (Additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Karen Pierog in Chicago, Zach Fagenson in Miami, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Peter Szekeley and Jonathan Allen in New York, writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jonathan Oatis)
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