Ecuador's Moreno proposes talks after deadly fuel protests

Quito (AFP) –


Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno on Friday proposed direct talks with indigenous leaders after deadly protests against fuel price hikes stretched into a 10th day.

"It is essential to stop the violence," Moreno said in a brief address on television. "I call on the leaders to talk directly with me."

Indigenous groups from disadvantaged communities in the Amazon and the Andes have spearheaded demands that Moreno reinstate fuel subsidies that were cut last week -- part of a deal his government struck to obtain a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF.

"The country must restore calm. Let the country know that we have the will to hold a dialogue," Moreno said.

On Thursday, indigenous leaders had hardened their stance in the stand-off, rejecting UN and Catholic Church-mediated talks, and calling for a "radicalization" of the protests.

Riot police clashed with indigenous demonstrators in Ecuador's capital again Friday, the 10th straight day of protests.

Demonstrators responded to volleys of tear gas with homemade mortars and fireworks launched through tubes, turning the area around the Congress building in Quito into a battleground.

The violence has brought much of the capital to a standstill since Monday and forced Moreno to relocate his government to Ecuador's second city, Guayaquil.

The crisis has seen more than 550 people wounded and about a thousand detained, according to the ombudsman's office.

Ending the subsidies meant that fuel prices shot up by as much as 120 percent from October 3.

- US support -

The United States expressed its support for Moreno's government Friday.

"We recognize the difficult decisions that the Government of Ecuador has taken to advance good governance and promote sustainable economic growth," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"We are aware and monitoring claims of external actor involvement in these demonstrations," Pompeo said.

Struggling to deal with an economic crisis, Moreno has accused his predecessor and ex-ally Rafael Correa along with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of an "attempted coup d'etat" using indigenous groups.

Maduro, a leftist firebrand whom Washington is seeking to oust, has denounced allegations of involvement as absurd, but praised the "popular insurrection" against the IMF.

- More protesters -

Apawki Ctro, spokesman for indigenous umbrella group CONAIE, said around 1,000 more indigenous people arrived in the city on Friday and another group is arriving to bolster the demonstrators.

CONAIE claimed around 20,000 indigenous people arrived in the capital last weekend from disadvantaged outlying communities in the Amazon and the Andes.

They joined trade union workers and students in a major protest against the subsidy cuts on Wednesday. It ended violently, leaving four protesters dead, including an indigenous leader.

The deaths brought the overall toll in the protests to five. The first victim was hit by a vehicle on Sunday in the southern province of Azuay.

Ecuador's indigenous groups make up a quarter of the country's 17.3 million people.

The protests have hit the country's oil industry hard, forcing the Energy Ministry to suspend more than two-thirds of its distribution of crude.

Protesters seized three oil facilities in the Amazon earlier this week.