Ecuador imposes curfew after protests push government out of capital

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QUITO (Reuters) – Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno on Tuesday ordered a curfew around government buildings after six days of violent anti-austerity protests that have pushed his administration out of the capital Quito and brought hundreds of arrests.

Following tactics that have toppled previous governments, thousands of indigenous demonstrators have flooded the highland capital. Some burst through security cordons to briefly enter the National Assembly on Tuesday, waving flags, pumping their fists and chanting: “We are the people!”

Elsewhere in Quito and other flashpoints, masked and stick-wielding protesters hurled stones and battled with security forces, who responded with tear gas. The clashes injured 19 civilians and 43 police officers, authorities said.

Facing the biggest challenge to his 2-1/2-year rule, Moreno has refused to reinstate fuel subsidies he recently cut and ruled out stepping down.

“Under no circumstance,” Moreno said in an interview with domestic TV channel Teleamazonas late on Tuesday. “I don’t see why I should (resign) if I’m making the right decisions.”

Moreno has declared a state of emergency here and relocated government operations to the coastal city of Guayaquil where there has been less trouble.

In a written decree on Tuesday, Moreno ordered that authorities restrict movement close to government buildings and strategic installations between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. to keep order.

The government is seeking mediation from the United Nations or Roman Catholic Church. Moreno has received “firm backing” for his handling of the unrest from seven Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Peru, according to Peru’s foreign ministry.

Protests erupted last Thursday when the government cut fuel subsidies here as part of a package of reforms, in keeping with a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

Moreno told Teleamazonas the measures would help Ecuador rein in an “immense” fiscal deficit he inherited from leftist predecessor Rafael Correa, whom he accuses of misusing public funds and leaving behind a raft of unfinished or unneeded construction projects.

“That’s why I understand that God and the people have put me in this place, to solve these problems,” Moreno said. “All we need is a little bit of understanding from the Ecuadorean people.”

Indigenous groups and others have been barricading roads with burning tires, rocks and branches. Police have deployed armored vehicles and water cannon.

Almost 680 people have been arrested, authorities say, including a legislator who supports Correa.

Moreno has accused Correa, his one-time mentor and boss when he was vice president, of seeking a coup with the help of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro.

Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule but broke with him after winning a 2017 election to succeed him, and moved economic policies to the right.

Speaking in Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile, Correa scoffed at the accusation.

Mounted riot police are seen near the National Assembly during protests against Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno’s austerity measures, in Quito, Ecuador October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

“They are such liars … They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests,” he told Reuters. “People couldn’t take it anymore, that’s the reality,” he said, referring to belt-tightening measures.

‘SAVAGE CAPITALISM’

Maduro, who has presided over an economic implosion and political crisis in Venezuela, denied on Tuesday that he had helped foment the protests and said Ecuador was rejecting the IMF’s “savage capitalist model.”

“That’s why the Ecuadorean people are in the streets, not because of Maduro, because of survival,” he said.

With protesters swarming around Quito, various government buildings were attacked overnight, authorities said, adding to looting and the destruction of ambulances and police vehicles in recent days.

In one incident, two people appeared to have fallen from a bridge during confrontations between police and protesters. Video on social media showed their bodies lying motionless, and the government promised an investigation. Indigenous groups have also captured some soldiers.

The unrest has affected oil output in the OPEC member. State-run Petroamazonas estimates it could lose about 188,000 barrels per day, or more than a third of its crude production, due to unrest at its facilities.

“There are groups bent on causing chaos and confrontation, endangering democratic order,” the government said in a statement.

Dialogue was necessary, it added, citing possible measures to compensate for higher fuel prices, such as credit lines for farmers and transport cooperatives.

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Although he enjoys the support of business and the military, Moreno’s popularity has sunk to less than 30%, compared with 70% after his election.

Indigenous-led protests brought down three presidents in the years before Correa’s rule.

Seven Latin American countries accused Maduro’s “regime” in Venezuela of seeking to destabilize Ecuador and expressed their backing for Moreno. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom many nations recognize as president, also accused Maduro of financing the Ecuador protests.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Jose Llangari in Quito, Yury Garcia in Guayaquil, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Angus Berwick; Editing by Tom Brown and Sonya Hepinstall

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