Duque opens Colombia talks following protests: official

Bogota (AFP) –


Under-fire Colombian President Ivan Duque, the target of days of unprecedented anti-government protests, on Sunday opened a national dialogue aimed at assuaging popular anger.

Duque, a conservative who is deeply unpopular just 18 months after his election, "initiated the social dialogue" with mayors and other officials at 3:00 pm (2100 GMT), the presidency said in a statement.

Duque outlined "the progress and the challenges facing his government" and listened to the views of mayors on health, education, infrastructural and peace issues in their cities, the statement said.

"We are assessing the situation and the urgent needs of the municipalities and cities, and the plans they have," Duque tweeted, without referring to the demands of protesters.

The talks at the Casa Narino presidential palace involved 24 incoming mayors elected in municipal polls last month, including those of Bogota, Cali and Medellin, the cities at the center of the protests.

The mayors are to take office in January.

The president had proposed the talks on Friday in response to nationwide protests a day earlier that descended into violence, leaving three dead.

- Demos continue -

Demonstrations continued Sunday in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, though much smaller than in previous days.

The demands of protesters include a crackdown on drug trafficking and violence, more flexible labor market conditions, and improved retirement benefits.

Duque said at the weekend that he would meet Monday with the ministers of finance, labor and trade, along with representatives of business owners and workers, while dialogue with "different social sectors" would take place during the week.

"The head of state is seeking to establish a close relationship that allows the national government to work as a team with mayors and elected governors, as well as their administrations," Sunday's presidency statement said.

Duque was late Sunday expected to continue the "national conversation with mayors and elected governors from all over the country" in the capital, it said.

The 43-year-old conservative has been criticized for his economic, social and security policies.

His administration also has to deal with hosting 1.4 million refugees fleeing neighboring Venezuela's economic meltdown, and the complex fallout of a 2016 peace deal with FARC rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in Bogota and other cities on Thursday as part of a nationwide general strike.

There were arrests and clashes as trade unions, students, opposition parties and the South American country's indigenous organizations vented their anger.

Three people have died and nearly 300 were wounded in the unrest.

There were further demonstrationson Friday and Saturday, and hundreds of people defied a curfew in the capital -- the first imposed since 1977 -- to converge in front of Duque's home, singing the national anthem and banging pots and pans for an hour.

In Bogota, some 13,000 soldiers and riot police have been deployed to keep watch over sensitive neighborhoods in the city of seven million.