Fri, Mar 17, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Ecuadoreans warned of threat to democracy

AP , QUITO

Members of the Santa Marianita de Puingulmi community block the Pan American highway some 40km north of Quito, near the town of Oton, on Wednesday in the third day of blockades organized by the Ecuadorean Indigenous Nationalities Confederation as a protest against a free-trade agreement between Ecuador and the US.

PHOTO: AFP

President Alfredo Palacio urged Ecuadoreans to defend the nation's fragile democracy amid protests by Indians opposed to free-trade talks with Washington that have led to violent clashes with police and the resignation of the interior minister.

The unrest spread from the highlands into the oil-producing southeast jungle, where police clashed with residents demanding more spending on public works and protesters took 15 soldiers hostage.

In a nationally broadcast address late on Wednesday Palacio said the protests were the result of "deceptive politics that seek to perversely tear apart the nation."

He called on the public to "close ranks" to defend the country's fragile democracy ahead of elections in October. He said met behind closed doors with the presidents of Congress and the Supreme Court to seek their support.

Interior Minister Alfredo Castillo's resignation on Wednesday came a day after he warned that successive protests -- not only by Indians but also contracted oil workers and jungle residents -- could lead to "another coup."

Ecuador has had three president forced from power since 1997.

Castillo quit amid criticism that he was disloyal to Palacio after making comments that appeared to support the Indians' demands.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, the nation's main Indian movement, started blockading roads and highways on Monday with burning tires, rocks and tree trunks and have threatened to overthrow Palacio's government if he signs a free-trade pact with the US.

They also have demanded that Ecuador cancel oil concession granted to US-based Occidental Petroleum Corp, which has been embroiled in tax and contract disputes with Ecuador's government since August 2004.

"We have achieved a negotiation based on mutual respect," Palacio said of the free-trade talks. "I have declared that we would negotiate without giving up our sovereign national right to obtain the best trade terms to benefit our commerce, our technology, our sovereign passage to modernity."

He added that the possible cancelation of Occidental's contract was a matter of legal due-process and could not be influenced by street demonstrations.

The Indian protest broke out a day after Palacio diffused a strike by contract oil workers and two weeks after his government ended violent demonstrations targeting oil facilities in Napo Province by agreeing to increase spending on social programs, roads and a regional airport.

On Wednesday, TV broadcast images of soldiers firing tear gas to disperse a small group of protesters in the jungle province of Pastaza who tried to seize the facilities of Italian-owned Agip Oil Corp to demand more government spending in their area.

Defense Ministry Oswaldo Jarrin told reporters that 15 soldiers were taken hostage in Puyo, 160km southeast of Quito, and that "they will be liberated by force. There is no possibility of negotiation."

Repelled from an oil installation, protesters returned to Puyo and seized the soldiers, Red Cross spokeswoman Maria Elena de Mantilla said. A medical team was allowed to examine the soldiers, who were unharmed, she said. About 30 people, including civilians and military personnel, were treated for minor injuries.

The Indian confederation is opposed to free-market economic policies and accuses the US of exercising too much influence in the region.

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