QUITO – Security forces clashed on Friday with indigenous demonstrators trying to re-seize control of Ecuador’s legislative palace as part of their revolt against the government’s austerity measures.
The fighting erupted before midday when a sea of protesters – headed by a line of women – approached the National Assembly building and began shouting slogans in Quechua and demanding that they be allowed past a security cordon.
“As women we don’t have any weapons. Our only ideology is to seize the Assembly because our leaders are unable to lead,” Yusta Malisa, a young protester from the Andean province of Tungurahua, told EFE.
The indigenous leaders urged protesters to avoid the use of force and raise their hands in a sign of peace.
“We’ve come to protest peacefully here. May there be no violence, and there also won’t be any from our side,” Jose Faringo, an indigenous leader from Pichincha province, told EFE.
But the initial calm was shattered when security forces employed tear gas against a crowd of people who were apparently wielding rocks, dispersing them in a matter of minutes.
EFE subsequently observed that three injured police officers were moved inside the legislative building and that two individuals had been arrested.
An intense battle then ensued for more than an hour, with tear gas being launched by police and fireworks, sticks and rocks being thrown from a location where protesters were trying to break through the cordon.
Demonstrators could be observed trying to access the parliament building via streets leading from El Arbolito park, where members of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie) have been gathering since Monday.
As the vicinity of the legislative building turned into a battle ground, armored vehicles, mounted police and a helicopter supported the law-enforcement efforts.
Security has been stepped up near the National Assembly building after it was occupied for about an hour on Tuesday by thousands of indigenous protesters, who are angered over budget-cutting measures that President Lenin Moreno has implemented under a $4.2 billion financing deal agreed in March with the International Monetary Fund.
“This package is going down because people are indignant,” Faringo said shortly before the clashes erupted.
As many as five people have died in connection with the protests that erupted nine days ago, although Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said in a press conference on Wednesday night that “no person has died in a clash with the police.”
On Friday, hundreds of “Amazon warriors” joined the indigenous-led, anti-government protests in Quito, while authorities confirmed that a new group of police officers were taken captive on Thursday night in the central Andean province of Cotopaxi.
The indigenous movement leading the protests against Moreno took eight uniformed police and two plainclothes officers prisoner Thursday at central Quito’s Ecuadorian Culture House (CCE), which indigenous activists have occupied since Monday.
All 10 were released after a funeral at the CCE for a Conaie leader, Inocencio Tucumbi, who was confirmed by the Ombudsman’s Office to have died in the protests in Quito on Wednesday.
Conaie leaders made four of the officers carry the casket bearing the remains of the deceased man.
Ecuador’s government said Friday that groups of demonstrators violently attacked police near two Quito hospitals and accused them of putting patients at risk.
On Wednesday, the Ecuadorian president welcomed the start of talks with some Conaie members and said he expected the turmoil in the country to end soon, but that confederation’s president, Jaime Vargas, said any indigenous leaders negotiating with the government are “traitors.”
The protests began on Oct. 3 with the Moreno administration’s enactment of the austerity package.
The most controversial aspect of the plan was the end of decades-old fuel subsidies, which spurred a 123 percent increase in the price of diesel, but the government also slashed public employees’ pay by 20 percent and took steps toward the privatization of pensions.
Moreno, who responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency, abandoned Quito on Monday for the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic hub, but returned to the capital within 48 hours.
The president says that unidentified elements from the government of his predecessor and political mentor, Rafael Correa, are orchestrating the unrest with the support of Venezuela’s leftist incumbent Nicolas Maduro.
Correa, who is currently living in his wife’s native Belgium, has vehemently denied the accusations but has called for Moreno to call fresh elections.
After serving for several years as Correa’s vice president, Moreno won election on a promise to maintain the center-left policies of the Alianza Pais party.
Instead, he has moved to reverse virtually all of Correa’s initiatives and programs.