Ecuador on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in five provinces after 10 days of protests by indigenous groups against a proposed free-trade agreement with the US.
President Alfredo Palacio placed the areas under military control and restricted freedom of movement, association and expression for an indefinite period, Interior Minister Felipe Vega said.
"A state of emergency has been declared in the provinces of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Imbabura, Canar and the cantons of Tabacunda and Cayambe, in Pichincha" province surrounding Quito, the official decree said.
"Public security forces will set conditions with the goal of protecting citizens and property, both public and private," Vega said.
"The president took this decision after exhausting all other options for dialogue," Vega said.
The state of emergency forbids public gatherings and marches and sets curfews.
Troops earlier this week reinforced security along major highways leading into the capital.
"I call on the indigenous peoples to stop their activities," Vega said.
Native groups opposed to the proposed trade deal have clashed with government troops and blocked roads for 10 days.
The protests were the latest test for Palacio, a cardiologist with little political backing who says he will not halt the trade negotiations. A strike this month by workers at state firm Petroecuador trimmed crude output.
The government hardened its position after failed talks with the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador, who demand a plebiscite on the free-trade agreement.
The groups marched on Quito to demand the plebiscite as well as the ejection of Oxy, a US oil company, for violation of Ecuadoran law.
Local chambers of commerce organized counter demonstrations in favor of the free-trade deal.
Ecuadorean and US officials will meet in Washington today for the trade talks.
Ecuador's Andean neighbors, Colombia and Peru, have already signed deals with the US.
Roughly a quarter of Ecuador's population are indigenous people who for centuries have been geographically, politically and economically isolated.
The protesters fear the trade pact will damage their livelihoods and way of life. Since protests began nine days ago, indigenous leaders have threatened to take their fight to the capital but so far only small groups have reached Quito.
"We are going to continue with the protests," Gilberto Talahua, an indigenous leader and organizer, said after the emergency announcement.
Palacio, who came to office 10 months ago after Congress fired his predecessor, has faced a series of strikes and protests from provinces seeking more financing from the state before presidential elections in October.
After centuries of discrimination by an elite, Indigenous groups organized to help overthrow president Jamil Mahuad in 2000. The movement has lost some momentum due to infighting, but is still a powerful voice.
Government officials said they were probing participation of foreign nongovernmental organizations in the demonstrations.
Indigenous leaders deny charges that their protests are funded by foreign governments or groups.
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