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Ecuador calls emergency to quell Indian protest

Written by: Staff
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QUITO, Ecuador, Marc 22: Ecuador has declared a state of emergency in five central provinces today to try to control renewed protests by thousands of Indians demanding the government quit US free-trade talks this week.

Interior Minister Felipe Vega announced the measure yesterday after Indian peasants intensified blockades on key roads in at least eight highland regions in protests that have cost Ecuador millions in lost commerce since they began last week.

''The president took this decision after exhausting all other options for dialogue,'' Vega told reporters.

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.

The protests were the latest test for President Alfredo Palacio, a cardiologist with little political backing who says he will not halt the trade negotiations. A strike this month by workers at state company Petroecuador trimmed crude output.

Ecuadorean and US officials will meet in Washington on tomorrow for the trade talks. Ecuador's Andean neighbors, Colombia and Peru, have already signed deals.

Indian 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 Indian leader and organizer, told Reuters after the emergency announcement.

The government declared emergency in the highland provinces of Cotopaxi, Canar, Chimborazo, Imbabura and parts of Pichincha, where Quito is located.

HISTORY OF TURMOIL

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.

Three Ecuadorean presidents have been forced out by turmoil in the unstable Andean country since 1997.

After centuries of discrimination by an elite, Indians organized to help overthrow President Jamil Mahuad in 2000. The movement has lost some momentum due to infighting, but is still a powerful voice for indigenous people.

Government officials said they were probing participation of foreign nongovernmental organizations in the demonstrations. Indians leaders deny charges their protests are funded by foreign governments or groups.

Speaking from Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dismissed suggestions from an Ecuadorean lawmaker that he was financing the simmering Indian protests.

Chavez, a socialist ally of Cuba who opposes US free-trade deals, has become a focal point for many resurging left-wing movements in South America. He says his self-styled revolution counters US policies. Washington accuses him of being a destabilizing influence.

''This is not the Venezuelan government. I believe this is the conscience of the people who have decided to live and be free,'' Chavez said referring to the protests.

Indians make up an estimated 30 per cent of Ecuador's total population of 13 million.

REUTERS

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