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1 Ecuador tightens security as Indians vow protests

Written by: Staff

QUITO, Ecuador, Mar 20 (Reuters) Ecuadorean troops tightened security on highways around Quito today as Indian leaders threatened to renew protests against this week's free trade talks with the United States.

Indian protesters set up roadblocks in three provinces and Quito police briefly fired tear gas to disperse dozens of Amazon Indians, some armed with spears. But most highways were clear and Quito was calm with businesses open as usual.

Thousands of Indian protesters blockaded major roads in Ecuador's highland provinces last week to demand the government abandon talks on a trade pact they fear will damage their livelihoods and way of life.

The protests, which cost Ecuador millions of dollars in lost commerce before losing steam, were the latest test to President Alfredo Palacio, a cardiologist with little political backing who says he will not quit trade talks in Washington.

''We will not allow these marches to reach Quito because they aim to destabilize democracy,'' presidential spokesman Enrique Proano told Reuters, adding that soldiers had been dispatched to protect highways into the capital.

Indians leaders in Quito said they would maintain protests in several central provinces until the government calls a referendum to decide over the future of the trade pact. But they had not decided whether to take their fight to Quito.

''We are going to continue until the government intelligently decides to call a referendum,'' Luis Macas, an Indian leader, told reporters.

After centuries of discrimination by a white and mestizo elite, Indians organized politically and helped overthrow President Jamil Mahuad in 2000. The movement recently lost momentum due to internal bickering but is still one of the most powerful voices for indigenous people in the Americas.

SERIES OF STRIKES 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.

But it was unclear how much support Indian communities could mobilize for new protests after demonstrations fizzled last week when indigenous leaders from several provinces decided to return home to rest.

In San Ignacio, a tiny village nestled in the Andes mountains 90 km south of Quito, leaders from 30 nearby Indian communities gathered over the weekend to decide on their strategy.

''For too many years we have been discriminated against,'' said Dioselinda Iza, an Indian leader wearing a traditional long shawl and short-rimmed hat. ''Enough is enough, we have to stop this deal.'' Ecuadorean and US officials meet in Washington on Thursday for free trade talks. Andean neighbors Colombia and Peru already have signed deals.

Ecuadorean Indians fear a trade deal with the United States will disrupt agricultural traditions that have been passed on for several generations and push them out of their comminutes and into the cities.

Indians throughout the Andes harvest potatoes, corn and other products for consumption in their hamlets. As part of the communal tradition, surplus harvest is sold in local markets.

Local economists and the government say any trade deal will not affect the commerce of crops produced in the Central region where most of the Indians live.

Some estimates say around 30 percent of Ecuador's 13 million citizens are Indian.

''This trade deal will starve us to death,'' said Maria Sillo, a mother of three who plants vegetables and makes about a week with what she sells in a nearby market. ''We prefer to die fighting this deal than to starve to death.'' REUTERS VJ RAI0244

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