President orders army onto streets of Ecuadorian capital

QUITO: Ecuador’s army took to the streets Saturday after President Lenín Moreno ordered the first 24-hour curfew in decades in response to a day of attacks on government buildings and media offices.

By Saturday night soldiers had retaken control of the park and streets leading to the National Assembly and the national comptroller’s office, which had been broken into by protesters who lit fires inside the building.

Moreno said the military would enforce the round the clock curfew in Quito and around critical infrastructures like power stations and hospitals in response to the day’s violence. It was the first such action imposed since a series of coups in the 1960s and ’70s.

Late Saturday night, Moreno announced some possible concessions in an economic package that was opposed by many Ecuadorians. But he didn’t retract his decision to remove fuel subsidies, a step that triggered the nationwide protests and clashes.

Moreno said his government would address some concerns of protesters, studying ways to ensure resources reach rural areas and offering compensation for those who lost earnings because of the recent upheaval.

For many in Ecuador, which had become one of the safest and most stable countries in the region, the violence that roiled the capital was a terrifying shock.

“Quito had a very hard day, of much tension and fear for its citizens,” Interior Minister María Paula Romo said.“What we saw today we haven’t seen before.”

About two hours after the comptroller’s office was attacked, a group of several dozen masked men swarmed the offices of the private Teleamazonas television station in northern Quito, set fires on the grounds and tried to break into the building where about 20 employees were trapped.

The offices of the newspaper El Comercio in southern Quito were also attacked, with the building’s security guards were seized and briefly bound before police arrived and drove off the assailants. Police also halted the attack on Teleamazonas.

Following hours of chaos, Moreno appeared on national television alongside his vice president and defence minister to announce that he was ordering people indoors and the army onto the streets.

Moreno said the masked protesters had nothing to do with the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians who have protested for nearly a week over a sudden rise in fuel prices as part of an International Monetary Fund-backed austerity package. He blamed the violence on drug traffickers, organized crime and followers of former President Rafael Correa, who has denied allegations he is trying to topple Moreno’s government.

“I have ordered the Armed Forces Joint Command to immediately undertake all the necessary measures and operations,” Moreno said. “We are going to restore order in all of Ecuador.”

Moreno served Correa as vice president before he become president and the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch. Moreno and many of his followers have alleged that Correa and his followers, backed by leftist rebels from Colombia and Venezuela, have used the indigenous protests as cover to try to topple him. The government has provided no evidence to support those claims, however.

The violence and military deployment closely followed the announcement of a possible softening of Ecuador’s 10-day standoff. Indigenous leaders of the fuel price protests that have paralyzed Ecuador’s economy said early Saturday afternoon that they were willing to negotiate with Moreno over the austerity package.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador said it would hold negotiations with the government but also protest in the streets. Leonidas Iza, a Quechua leader from mountainous Cotopaxi province, appeared to back Moreno’s curfew, asking the armed forces to “guarantee peace and bring back the constitutional order.”

Iza said the indigenous movement rejected “certain groups’ intentions to take advantage of the Ecuadorian indigenous people’s movement.” He did not offer details.

Across the capital throughout the day, hooded men used rocks and burning tires to block streets in residential neighbourhoods. Some drivers, pedestrians and owners of small businesses reported being threatened and robbed. Roads leading to the international airport were blocked, according to city officials.

Romo, the interior minister, said 30 people had been arrested in the attack on the auditor’s office. Firefighters said they extinguished the blaze after soldiers and police retook control of the building, which houses evidence in corruption investigations.

By nightfall, Quito residents were hanging out their windows and banging pots and pans, a typical form of protest in the region that many said was, this time, a protest against the day’s chaos and a call for a return to stability.

In an unexplained episode, opposition legislator Gabriela Rivadeneira, a close ally of Correa, entered the Mexican embassy, which said it had provided her “safety and protection.”

Ecuadorian officials said she had no pending charges or reason to seek political asylum.

Ecuador, a former OPEC member, was left deeply in debt by a decade of high-spending governance and the oil price drop. Moreno is raising taxes, liberalizing labour laws and cutting public spending in order to win more than $4 billion in emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund.

As part of that plan, Moreno eliminated a subsidy on the price of fuel on October 2, driving the most popular variety of gasoline from $1.85 to $2.39 a gallon and diesel from $1.03 to $2.30. Panic and speculation sent prices soaring, with costs of some products doubling or more.

Ecuador’s indigenous people, wracked by poverty and underserved by government programs, were infuriated. Over the last week, thousands of Shuar, Saraguro, Quechua and other indigenous people streamed into Quito from deep in the Amazon rainforest and high in the towns and villages of the Ecuadorian Andes.

The standoff halted Ecuador’s oil production, blocked highways and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in loss to industries such as flower-growing to dairy farming.

An indigenous leader and four other people have died in clashes with authorities, according to the public defender’s office. The president’s office has reported two deaths.