8 police officers held captive by Indigenous protesters in Ecuador
Indigenous groups gathering for more protests against removal of fuel subsidies
Indigenous leaders in Ecuador captured and publicly paraded eight police officers before a crowd on Thursday, pushing back against a tough government crackdown on anti-austerity protests that have shaken President Lenin Moreno's administration.
In an escalation of week-long demonstrations over Moreno's ending of fuel subsidies and loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), protesters detained the officers at a cultural centre in Ecuador's capital, Quito, being used as an opposition base.
The eight officers were forced on stage in front of thousands of people. Looking scared, the officers were asked to take off their helmets, bullet proof vests and boots. One of the officers was forced to drape a national flag around his shoulders and don a hat of a style worn by some Indigenous people.
Indigenous leader Jaime Vargas invited the captive police to join the anti-government campaign of the protesters.
Since last week, security forces have turned tear gas and water cannons on protesters who have set up burning barricades and hurled stones at police lines.
The discontent widened to include calls for the resignation of Moreno, who has refused to quit.
"We denounce the interior militants and the minister of defence, who are applying undue levels of violence," claimed Leonidas Iza, an Indigenous leader speaking to thousands of protesters.
The action followed clashes with police during a nationwide strike on Wednesday that killed at least one protester in the highland capital. The ombudsman's office is investigating reports of other fatalities.
Confirming the death of a protester on Wednesday, the ombudsman, a state office that monitors conflicts, said the man died of brain trauma, possibly from a tear gas canister to the head.
"We're not used to this kind of repression," said ombudsman Freddy Carrion over the phone, worrying about a potential spiral of violence on both sides.
The unrest in Ecuador is the latest flash point in Latin America over unpopular structural economic reforms. Argentine President Mauricio Macri was trounced in an August primary vote amid stiff opposition to an IMF deal he signed last year.
Complaining about a lack of local media coverage of police violence, Indigenous leaders asked TV journalists onto the stage and demanded that broadcasters show the scene live.
At least three private channels complied.
"We're going to radicalize [the protests] with more force, my friends," Jaime Vargas, head of Indigenous group Conaie, told the cheering crowd. "I've just ordered our partners in the Amazon to close all oil wells."
In a message to Moreno, Vargas added: "Don't play with Indigenous people."
The protesters want Moreno to repeal austerity measures that his government passed in keeping with a $4.2 billion IMF loan. They also asked for the bodies of any dead protesters to be brought to the assembly.
The government responded by calling for the police officers to be freed as a condition for talks.
"We demand that any process of dialogue be done in a framework of peace," the government's secretary general Jose Briones said in a brief televised address.
One of the police officers told the crowd at the cultural centre that his group had approached the protesters in hopes of showing them that security forces were not all abusive.
Strong police, military presence
Elsewhere in Quito, security forces are patrolling after a day of protests that included clashes with police. Thousands of Indigenous people gathered in Quito on Thursday to march again against the government, intensifying pressure on the president after a week of unrest sparked by fuel price hikes. A strong police and military presence was seen throughout the downtown area of Quito, particularly surrounding government buildings.
The unrest has slashed the Andean nation's oil production and forced the government to relocate to the coastal city of Guayaquil. More than 800 people have been arrested and more than 400 wounded, according to authorities.
Protests erupted in the nation of 17 million people last week when truck drivers took to the streets over fuel price rises. But Indigenous protesters have now taken the lead, with many walking from surrounding provinces to Quito.
Moreno, 66, who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, has repeatedly refused to restore the fuel subsidies, defending their elimination as part of overdue efforts to rein in the fiscal deficit.
The military has appealed to Ecuadorians to denounce anyone who uses the cover of the protest to carry out vandalism and other crimes.
The military's backing is key for Moreno, who has said that his government is negotiating with Indigenous groups.
Moreno has said dialogue is difficult because so many indigenous groups are involved and that he will not resign despite widespread discontent in the South American nation of 17 million.
With files from The Associated Press