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Ecuador shuts down major oil pipeline amid worsening protests over fuel prices

People protest against a fuel price hike ordered by the government to secure an IMF loan in front of riot police in Guayaquil, Ecuador on October 9, 2019.
People protest against a fuel price hike ordered by the government to secure an IMF loan in front of riot police in Guayaquil, Ecuador on October 9, 2019. Marcos Pin, AFP

Protesters in Ecuador fought a running battle with security forces Wednesday in a second day of violent protests over a fuel price hike that forced the government to suspend most of the country's deliveries of crude.

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The violence broke out as thousands of people representing indigenous groups, farmers, students and labour unions marched on a square in Quito's historic centre near the government headquarters.

Masked demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails and paving stones. Clouds of tear gas and palls of black smoke from burning tires rose over the colonial downtown area, a UNESCO world heritage site.

After clashes broke out in the area Tuesday, the government of President Lenin Moreno posted security forces to keep the march from reaching the plaza.

Protesters on Wednesday broke off from the main procession and hurled rocks at riot police, who fought back with volleys of tear gas and water cannon.

Several people were injured in the clashes.

The protesters are demanding that Moreno reinstate fuel subsidies that were rescinded after $4.2 billion in loans were agreed with the IMF.

Oil industry hit 

The unrest threatened to inflict wider damage on an already weakened economy.

The energy ministry announced it was shutting down one of the country's two domestic oil pipelines, effectively suspending two-thirds of its distribution of crude.

"Due to this shutdown, we are analysing the possibility of declaring Force Majeure," a mechanism to avoid the country incurring penalties for postponing crude shipments, the ministry said in a statement.

Protesters seized three oil facilities in the Amazon earlier this week.
Ecuador, which exited the OPEC international oil cartel last week citing economic constraints, produces over 500,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) -- which was worth some $4.6 billion in exports in the first six months of the year.

However, Wednesday's shutdown accounts for 68 percent of its oil output, the ministry said, adding that the protests had cost $12.8 million in lost production to date.

Moreno's government has held talks with protest groups but Wednesday's march proceeded anyway.

On Tuesday, clashes between security forces and protesters broke out near Congress and demonstrators -- many of them indigenous men armed with sticks and whips -- surged through a security cordon and into the building before being pushed back.

The demonstrations broke out after increases of up to 120 percent in fuel prices came into force on October 3.

They have so far left one civilian dead and 77 people injured, the majority of them security forces, the government said. Prior to Wednesday's protest, 477 people had been detained.

Dialogue

Discussions with leaders of the powerful indigenous umbrella organization CONAIE took place in Guayaquil, some 170 miles (270 kilometres) southwest of the capital.

"There is dialogue with the brother indigenous peoples who unfortunately have needs," Moreno said.

He also offered to free up resources for those hit hard by the rise in fuel prices.

Moreno had accused his predecessor and ex-ally Rafael Correa along with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of an "attempted coup d’état."

He said they were using "indigenous groups, taking advantage of their mobilization to plunder and destroy," accusations Maduro dismissed as absurd.

Moreno has drawn support, however, from seven Latin American countries that, in a joint statement, rejected any effort by Maduro and his allies to "destabilize" Ecuador.

The seven -- including Argentina, Brazil and Colombia -- have right-wing governments that see Moreno's moderate socialist administration as an important regional ally against Venezuela.

'No coup' 

Correa, meanwhile, called for early elections and denied he was attempting to oust Moreno.

"There's no coup here. Conflicts in democracy are resolved at the polls," the Belgium-based Correa said in a video published on social media.

Moreno scrapped fuel subsidies as part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to obtain loans despite Ecuador's high public debt.

The subsidies were costing the government $1.3 billion a year. The IMF agreement, signed in March, allowed Ecuador to borrow $4.2 billion.
 

(AFP)

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