World

Ecuador's president temporarily moves seat of government amid protests in capital

Ecuador's government says it would be open to mediation via the United Nations or the Catholic Church, after almost a week of anti-austerity protests that have rocked the nation and brought hundreds of arrests.

Administration says it's open to mediation by influential Catholic Church or the UN

Indigenous anti-government protesters arrive by foot in Quito on Tuesday. Ecuador has endured days of popular upheaval since President Lenin Moreno scrapped fuel price subsidies, a step that set off protests and clashes across the South American country. (Dolores Ochoa/The Associated Press)

Ecuador's government said Tuesday it would be open to mediation via the United Nations or the Catholic Church, after almost a week of anti-austerity protests that have rocked the nation and brought hundreds of arrests.

The government sought foreign mediation as thousands of Indigenous protesters converged on the highland capital, Quito. Various government buildings were attacked overnight, authorities said, adding to looting and the destruction of ambulances and police vehicles in recent days.

Facing the biggest challenge to his two-and-a -half-year rule, President Lenin Moreno has declared a state of emergency and moved government operations to the coastal city of Guayaquil where there has been less trouble.

"The only response is dialogue and firmness at the same time," presidency secretary Juan Roldan told local radio, saying authorities were open to help from the UN, the Catholic Church or university rectors.

The number of arrests has risen to 570, he said. Among those detained were a Congress member who supports Moreno's predecessor, Rafael Correa, said Roldan.

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

Soldiers walk near burning barricades during protests against austerity measures of Moreno's government, in Duran on Monday night. (Santiago Arcos/Reuters)

Burning tires, rocks

Indigenous groups and others have been barricading roads with burning tires, rocks and branches, while police have deployed armoured vehicles and tear gas in response.

Moreno has accused the leftist Correa — his former mentor and boss when he was vice-president — of seeking a coup with the help of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

"They want to turn Ecuador into Venezuela," Roldan said.

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-exile, Correa told Reuters the accusation against him was nonsense.

"They are such liars.… They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests," he said, holding up his mobile telephone.

Moreno, left, and predecessor Rafael Correa are shown on May 24, 2017. The relationship has deteriorated since then, with Moreno accusing the exiled Correa of plotting a coup, an accusation the ex-president has angrily denied. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

"People couldn't take it anymore. That's the reality," he said, referring to the belt-tightening economic measures.

Maduro responded to the accusation of Venezuelan involvement in Ecuador by jokingly referring to himself as "Super Maduro" and wiggling his mustache.

"I move my mustache and bring down governments," he said during an event on evening television.

Maduro said Moreno should "take that economic package back," and "open a dialogue with the peasants, workers and Indigenous people."

Oil production down

The unrest has affected oil output in Ecuador, an OPEC member. Several oil wells have ceased production totalling 65,000 barrels daily because of protests at the installations, the energy ministry said.

The disturbances have spread from transport workers to students to Indigenous demonstrators, an ominous turn for the government.

Indigenous protesters played a major role in the 2005 resignation of Ecuador's president at the time, Lucio Gutierrez, though the military's tacit approval was key to his removal.

The country's biggest Indigenous group, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador — which also had mounted protests against Correa — said Moreno's government had failed to address protesters' concerns and the welfare of Ecuador's "most vulnerable" people.

"Troops and police who approach Indigenous territories will be detained and subjected to Indigenous justice," the group said in a statement.

Colombia said it is suspending services at its diplomatic missions in neighbouring Ecuador because of the unrest.

Canadian Embassy closed

Ottawa updated its travel advisory about Ecuador on Tuesday, saying "civil unrest continues" and that there are "reports of looting and violence in all major centres."

The advisory said Canada's embassy in Quito is temporarily closed "due to the current security situation," but Canadians in Ecuador can contact Global Affairs through email at sos@international.gc.ca or by calling 1-613-996-8885.

"Be cautious and avoid crossing road blockades," the advisory says.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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