Ecuador: Army Crackdown Leaves Four Indian Protesters Dead

QUITO -- The protests by indigenous groups against the government's economic austerity policies have brought large areas of the country to a standstill for the past two weeks, intensifying Monday when four people, including a child, were killed when the army cracked down on demonstrators in the Amazon province of Napo.

Three people were killed when military forces dislodged a group of protesters setting up a roadblock in Napo, and the fourth was killed as the army quashed a street march in Tena, the capital of that province.

Catholic nun Elsie Monge, director of the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission, told IPS that if the disproportionate use of force continued, violence could spiral out of control.

''Under no circumstances can bloodshed between brothers and sisters be justified,'' she added. ''We firmly reject the use of arms against the people, because it violates the most precious right of any human being - the right to life.''

The violence and repression seen in the past few days are not the way to deal with the nationwide protests and roadblocks and the social discontent, said Monge, who wondered, ''What happened to dialogue and the guarantees of a state of law?''

The military action in Ecuador's highland region against Indian protesters cutting off several highways has also left more than 25people injured by bullets, at least five critically.

The military repression in Napo was the worst seen since President Gustavo Noboa decreed a state of national emergency last Friday in an attempt to put an end to the demonstrations.

The state of national emergency authorises the security forces to mobilise troops and carry out searches and seizures, bans the right to free association, and permits authorities to close ports.

The protests began 12 days ago to demand that the government lift several economic measures adopted in December, including a hike in fuel prices which led to a major increase in the cost of public transport and fuel for cooking.

The demonstrations, which have been headed by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), are also aimed at getting the government to reverse its policy of dollarisation of the economy. Since the measure was adopted last year, it has caused severe difficulties for the large proportion of Ecuadorians who scrape by on a dollar a day.

Noboa's decree led to the immediate suspension of dialogue between Indian leaders and the government, which was renewed Sunday and broke off once again on Monday.

The prospects of reaching an agreement between the parties is even more remote today, say analysts.

Talks had begun last Thursday thanks to the efforts of a mediating commission comprised of representatives of Catholic and Protestant church groups, the United Nations, the Association of Municipalities and sectors of civil society.

The commission was able to establish the groundwork for beginning direct dialogue between indigenous leaders and Noboa, but within hours the president backed down and designated Vice President Pedro Pinto to take his place in the talks.

The delegates from the indigenous communities upheld their position Friday that they would negotiate only with the president, and announced that the protests would intensify.

With the announcement that the uprising would heat up, 50 indigenous and social leaders initiated a hunger strike - for an indefinite period - on the campus of the Salesiana University in Quito.

An hour later, the government declared a state of emergency.

Ricardo Ulcuango, vice-president of CONAIE, said Monday that the indigenous peoples would only return to the negotiating table ''when the state of emergency is lifted and the repression stops.''

Indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso, meanwhile, told IPS they would not negotiate as long as the government ''maintains its doubletalk.''

The Secretary of the Administration, Marcelo Santos, one of the government delegates in the talks, declared that the indigenous leaders suspended the dialogue unilaterally. He also justified the military repression in Napo, pointing to the violence perpetrated by indigenous protesters that left several government troops injured.

Nina Pacari, a legislative deputy of the Pachakutik Movement, affirmed that the intensification of the strife was foreseeable ''because the last thing the government has done in this conflict is dialogue.''

The protesters have kept the roads through the Sierra blocked for the last 10 days, and the roads from the Amazon region have been cut off since Thursday. In the provinces of Chimborazo and Tungurahua, in the central Sierra, they have taken over TV and radio transmission sites.

In Tungurahua, they also occupied the potable water distribution centre and cut off water entirely to some neighbourhoods of Ambato, the provincial capital, in response to the suspension of water service at the Salesiana University of Quito, where some 6,000 indigenous people have been camped since Jan 27.

During the protests, government building takeovers occurred in Puyo, capital of the Amazonian province of Pastaza, and in Guaranda, capital of Bolivar province in the Sierra, and the occupation of the cathedral continues in Riobamba, capital of Chimborazo.

In the cities of Riobamba, Ambato, Ibarra, Otavalo, Cayambe, Latacunga, Guaranda and Cotacachi, the markets remain closed and roadblocks are preventing the transport of goods to the coastal and Amazonian regions, causing several cities to suffer supply shortages.

Flower growers in the Sierra are on the verge of losing their major export shipment to the United States for Valentine's Day, Feb 14, worth more than 100 million dollars.

So far more than 200 people are behind bars and some 30 indigenous protesters were wounded by gunfire. Four of them are in serious condition.

Miguel Lluco, coordinator of the Pachakutik Movement, told IPS that the 27mayorships, five prefectures and 461 parochial councils controlled by his political group are now backing the uprising,aiding in roadblocks with heavy machinery and people.

The business community of Guayaquil, the nation's primary commercial centre, has demanded from the outset that the government use ''a heavy hand, repression and prison'' against the demonstrators. It also backs the state of emergency and the military and police actions taken.

Xavier Abad, vice-president of the Chamber of Industries of Cuenca, presented an opposing position to that of the Guayaquil business leaders, affirming that ''breaking off dialogue and declaring a state of emergency will only aggravate the country's situation.''

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