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Ecuador Indians block main highway in trade protest

Written by: Staff
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QUITO, Ecuador, Mar 16 (Reuters) Ecuadorean Indians today vowed to continue protests that have blocked the country's main north-south highway until the government stops negotiating a free trade pact with the United States.

The protests blocking the Pan-American highway north and south of Quito are part of widespread unrest in the country as various groups press for political or economic advantage with the weakened government of President Alfredo Palacio.

Yesterday 2,000 troops were sent to reinforce security in the Amazon province of Pastaza, where hundreds of angry residents demanding the release of promised funds to their communities have skirmished with security forces.

Indian peasants clad in ponchos and rubber boots have set up barriers of burning tires and rubble to block roads in eight provinces since Monday in protests that hurt the economy and cost the interior minister his job.

The Indians, a powerful political force in the country, are demanding that Palacio pull out of talks due to resume in Washington next week aimed at reached a trade deal, which they say will hurt rural workers and further disrupt their culture.

''We are currently meeting with our communities to plan our next move,'' Humberto Cholango, Indian leader and organizer told Reuters. ''But we will not stop protests until the government says it will quit this trade deal.'' Palacio, who has struggled with protests and strikes since he came to power in April when Congress fired his predecessor for meddling with the Supreme Court, has vowed to go ahead with the trade talks.

Ecuador's trade pact talks with the United States are deadlocked, mainly over agricultural issues, while neighboring Colombia and Peru have reached agreements with Washington.

Analysts say Palacio's weak government has become an easy target for social groups with political and financial demands that use protests as a tool to inflict pressure.

Last week, oil contract workers at state oil firm Petroecuador went on strike and briefly disrupted the country's vital crude production.

REUTERS SK RAI0213

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