MACHACHI, ECUADOR (AFP) – Protesters clashed with Ecuadoran forces on Monday as they marched toward the capital to demonstrate against soaring fuel prices, with the government announcing three oil facilities had been seized, slashing production by 12 per cent.
Riot police and the military used tear gas to try to disperse marchers in the town of Machachi on the outskirts of Quito after they blocked roads with burning tires and barricades ahead of a protest set for today.
“More than 20,000 indigenous people will be arriving in Quito,” said Jaime Vargas, leader of the umbrella indigenous organisation CONAIE. In 2000, CONAIE was key to driving then-president Jamil Mahuad from office during another economic crisis.
Other protesters attempted to force their way into the National Legislative Assembly in the capital, and committed “acts of vandalism in the vicinity,” the body said in a statement.
The clashes came as Ecuador’s Ministry of Energy announced that activities in three oil fields in the Amazon region – one operated by private firm Petrobell and the others by state company Petroamazonas – had been suspended “due to the seizure of the facilities by groups of people outside the operation.”
The seizures affected 12 per cent of the country’s oil production, or 63,250 barrels of crude per day, the ministry said in a statement that did not identify the groups responsible. In a radio and television address, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor and ex-ally Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of an “attempted coup d’etat” and of “using some indigenous groups, taking advantage of their mobilisation to plunder and destroy.”
He added that government business had temporarily moved to the port city of Guayaquil.
Protesters from southern Andean provinces, some armed with sticks and whips, were travelling to the capital in pick-up trucks and on foot, according to CONAIE, while other indigenous groups were set to arrive from the north.
The protests – the largest in a decade in Ecuador are being led by transport unions but include students and others. The country has been rocked by days of demonstrations after increases of up to 120 per cent 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. A total of 477 people have been detained.
The United States (US), “is monitoring recent developments in Ecuador carefully. We reject violence as a form of political protest,” Acting Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Michael Kozak said in a tweet.
Moreno scrapped fuel subsidies as part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)to obtain loans despite Ecuador’s high public debt. On Sunday, the President had called for dialogue with the indigenous groups. Nelson Erazo, the leader of the Popular Front of workers and students, has said “the people’s actions will not stop here if the government does not change its policy.”
The subsidies were costing the government USD1.3 billion a year.
The IMF agreement, signed in March, allowed Ecuador to borrow USD4.2 billion.
Moreno – who blames the deterioration in the country’s finances on Correa – declared a state of emergency last Thursday. It allows the government to restrict movement, to use the armed forces to maintain order and to censor the press.
“This is a very difficult situation, that could lead us into less stable situations, to governments that fall,” said Simon Pachano, a political scientist at Quito’s FLACSO university. CONAIE warned that security forces entering indigenous areas would be captured and held.
Indigenous leaders claimed they were holding several dozen soldiers since last Sunday.